In a sharply worded letter to Hayden Friday, the chairman of the powerful Senate Intelligence Committee, Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., wrote he was "surprised and troubled" by the director's comments, which "are not consistent with assessments that have been provided to the Senate Intelligence Committee over the past year."
The letter came within hours of the publication of Hayden's comments that al-Qaida had suffered "near strategic defeat" in both Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and "significant setbacks … globally" that were keeping it "off balance -- even in their best safe haven along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border."
"I have seen nothing, including classified intelligence reporting, that would lead me to this conclusion," wrote Rockefeller, citing congressional testimony by Hayden and others to the effect that al-Qaida had reconstituted its central leadership in that mountainous and lawless region.
"The director's comments, if accurately reported, dramatically overstate the degree to which al-Qaida is on the defensive, especially (on the Afghan-Pakistan border)," a Rockefeller aide told United Press International.
In the interview, with The Washington Post, Hayden also appeared to jab at the administration's critics in Congress. The Post article reported he was "troubled that Congress and many in the media are 'focused less on the threat and more on the tactics the nation has chosen to deal with the threat'" -- an apparent reference to lawmakers' efforts to curtail the CIA's use of controversial "enhanced interrogation" techniques, which some say amount to torture.
CIA spokesman George Little told United Press International that Hayden had not referred to "Congress when talking about the focus on counter-terror tactics." Instead, Little said, he had referred to "elite commentary" as being "focused less on the threat and more on the tactics the nation has chosen to deal with the threat."
Little defended Hayden's other comments, saying that he had simply stated "progress has been made against al-Qaida, which remains a very dangerous foe. That judgment should be no surprise to anyone familiar with the intelligence."
Rockefeller also questioned Hayden's motive for giving the interview, writing that he was "intrigued, not only by the substance, but by the timing of this interview" and asking for "a full explanation of both the rationale for, and the substance of, your interview," and for Hayden to "correct any inaccuracies or misimpressions" from the Washington Post article, which was headlined "U.S. cites big gains against al-Qaida: Group is facing setbacks globally, CIA chief says."
"The interview was arranged in connection with Gen. Hayden's second anniversary as CIA director this past Friday," Little told UPI, adding it was one of a number he had done for that reason.
The row highlights the political minefield officials must negotiate in their public comments about the U.S. war on terror during an election campaign where the balance sheet on the conflict is a major point of dispute between the two parties.
Hayden's comments, "or at least the way they were reported, left a dangerous misimpression that needed to be publicly corrected," said the Rockefeller aide.
Officials need to "tread very carefully" in an election year and "avoid inserting themselves into the political process" by making comments that could become fodder for election demagoguery, the aide added.
Little said that officials were focused on the mission in their public comments, as in all their work. "It would be absurd for anyone to suggest -- and (Rockefeller's) letter does not -- that his comments were intended to influence the presidential election."
"In this political atmosphere right now, there is always going to be the potential that one side or the other is going to pick up on" any comments made by officials, said a senior staffer from the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
"There is a potential there for the agencies to get dragged into the fight."
The staffer added that there was some concern among U.S. intelligence professionals that if their leaders were seen as getting into the fight, it could create problems with an incoming administration.
"A new administration that wants to change the thought process … might also feel it has to change (personnel)," said the staffer, adding the fear was that if a broad swath of officials in agency leadership positions were seen as being too closely identified with current administration policies, "people might have to be replaced for that reason alone."