WASHINGTON -- The CIA nominee, General Michael V. Hayden, has told a Democratic senator that he may be open to changes in an eavesdropping law to allow the Bush administration's warrantless surveillance.
President Bush and senior officials have said they do not believe changes are needed to empower the National Security Agency to eavesdrop, without court approval, on communications between people in the United States and overseas when terrorism is suspected. The 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act established a system requiring national security agencies to first seek approval from a secretive federal court before monitoring Americans.
Bush's program skirted those rules.
Hayden, an Air Force four-star general and former National Security Agency director, and other government officials have said that they did not ask Congress to change the surveillance law because the debate would reveal US intelligence techniques.
Gradually, the White House has shifted in its position, saying it is committed to working with Congress on legislation that would write the president's eavesdropping authority into statute.
But the White House has not specifically embraced changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act process.
According to Senator Richard J. Durbin, a Democrat of Illinois, Hayden indicated that he could support a congressional debate on modifying that law. The exchange came during a 35-minute meeting yesterday about Hayden's nomination to be CIA director.
Durbin said Hayden had told him: ''With all the publicity that has surrounded this program, we may be closer to the possibility of asking for a change" in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
''He didn't say he would," Durbin added.
Hayden aides could not immediately be reached for comment.
The government has ended an inquiry into the warrantless eavesdropping program because the National Security Agency refused to grant Justice Department lawyers the necessary security clearance to probe the matter.
Outgoing CIA director Porter J. Goss announced his resignation Friday. He was nudged aside in part over conflicts with national intelligence director John Negroponte and his top deputy, Hayden.