WASHINGTON – U.S. intelligence officials told Congress on Thursday that disclosure of once-classified projects like President Bush's no-warrant eavesdropping program have undermined their work.
"The damage has been very severe to our capabilities to carry out our mission," CIA Director Porter Goss told the Senate Intelligence Committee, citing disclosures about a variety of CIA programs that he suggested may have been compromised.
Goss said a federal grand jury should be empaneled to determine "who is leaking this information."
But Democratic members of the panel accused the Bush administration of wanting to have it both ways.
"The president has not only confirmed the existence of the program, he has spoken at length about it repeatedly," while keeping Congress in the dark, said Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, the panel's senior Democrat.
Rockefeller suggested that such "leaks" most likely "came from the executive branch" of the government.
That brought a terse response from FBI Director Robert Mueller, who said, "It's not fair to point a finger as to the responsibility of the leak."
The sometimes pointed exchanges came as leaders of the nation's intelligence agencies appeared before the panel in a rare public session to give a rundown on threats facing the world.
Committee Democrats sought to change the focus to the president's decision to authorize the National Security Agency to eavesdrop — without first obtaining warrants — on communications to and from those in the United States and terror suspects abroad.
National Intelligence Director John Negroponte, who oversees all intelligence activities, strongly defended the program, calling it crucial for protecting the nation against its most menacing threat.
"This was not about domestic surveillance," he said.
As an indication of how closely the administration held the NSA program, Paul McNulty, the acting deputy attorney general since October, said Thursday he learned of it only when he read about it in The New York Times.
Testifying at his Senate confirmation hearing, McNulty said he does not know whether information gathered through the warrantless surveillance has been used in prosecutions in the Alexandria, Va.-based federal judicial district where he has been the chief federal prosecutor since Sept. 2001.
Two defendants in terrorism cases in Virginia have asked a federal judge to determine whether any evidence against them resulted from NSA eavesdropping.
Goss complained that leaks to the news media about classified CIA programs — such as reported CIA secret prisons abroad — had damaged his own agency's work.
"I use the words 'very severe' intentionally. And I think the evidence will show that," he said.
Goss cited a "disruption to our plans, things that we have under way." Some CIA sources and "assets" had been rendered "no longer viable or usable, or less effective by a large degree," he said.
The revelations have also made intelligence agencies in other countries mistrustful of their U.S. counterparts, Goss said.
"I'm stunned to the quick when I get questions from my professional counterparts saying, 'Mr. Goss, can't you Americans keep a secret?"
Goss, when pressed, said he was speaking of programs run by the CIA, and would let NSA officials speak for themselves.
Gen. Michael Hayden, the principal deputy director of national intelligence and a former NSA director, said it was hard to characterize any damage done to his agency in an open session.
But, he said, "Some people claim that somehow or another our capabilities are immune to this kind of information going out into the public domain."
"And, I can tell you, in a broad sense, that is certainly not true."
Negroponte said great strides had been made in fighting global terrorism.
"We have eliminated much of the leadership that presided over Al Qaeda in 2001," he said, "and U.S. -led counterterrorism efforts in 2005 continued to disrupt its operations, take out its leaders and deplete its cadre."
But, Negroponte added, the terror organization's core elements still plot and make preparations for terrorist strikes.
He suggested that "high impact attacks" would continue, and said Al Qaeda continues to pursue chemical, biological and atomic weapons in hopes of attacking the United States.
After a public session lasting just under four hours, the committee and its witnesses went into a closed-door session.