September 1, 2010

At the Crossroads of Democracy and Espionage

Michael Hayden didn't plan to be an intelligence officer. But, “one job at a time,” he rose to direct two of the nation's most significant and visible spy agencies, the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency.

Michael Hayden, military retiree, is a formidable presence despite his relatively short stature, conservative dress and genial, self-deprecating sense of humor. He is, after all, a former Air Force four-star general, the immediate past director of the Central Intelligence Agency, a previous deputy director of national intelligence, and a former director of the National Security Agency.

But let's say those old titles don't matter. What matters more is what Hayden actually did during those and a dozen other tours of duty in military and government life. To name just a very few:

  • He guided creation of the NSA's greatly intensified signals surveillance program that began following the intelligence and national disaster of Sept. 11, 2001.
  • He played an important role in the program that has taken al-Qaida's senior leadership “off the battlefield,” an effort that, many believe, has significantly reduced that terrorist organization's ability to launch meaningful attacks on U.S. soil.
  • Taking over a troubled CIA that had been criticized for the intelligence failures of 9/11 and Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction, he provided experienced leadership and a clear direction for the agency.
  • He emerged from the zone of secrecy that surrounds the leaders of the U.S. intelligence community to respond publicly to criticism of challenged antiterrorist policies and to raise seminal questions about the sometimes uneasy relationship of democracy with the very secret culture of espionage.

In a now well-known October 2002 public statement to the joint congressional committee that investigated what U.S. agencies knew in advance of the 9/11 attacks, Hayden framed the critically important issue of the day this way:

“What I really need you to do is to talk to your constituents and find out where the American people want that line between security and liberty to be,” Hayden said. “.We need to get it right. We have to find the right balance between protecting our security and protecting our liberty. If we fail in this effort by drawing the line in the wrong place, that is, overly favoring liberty or security, then the terrorists win and liberty loses.”

That compelling question remains unresolved. Under President George W. Bush, the intelligence community established an understanding of what was permitted and what wasn't. In today's political environment, that understanding has been challenged repeatedly and partially dismantled. Interrogation techniques, surveillance of domestic communications, cooperative agreements to trace terrorist funding, detention of Islamic extremist detainees at Guantanamo Bay, cooperative agreements with foreign intelligence services, overseas holding and interrogation areas and more have been attacked, second-guessed and, in some cases, discarded by the nation's current leadership.

Under the previous national leadership, Hayden asserts, “We made al-Qaida less capable of attacking the homeland, and we did that by taking the fight to them.” The current leadership has continued many of the previous policies, but has discontinued others.

Michael V. Hayden was born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He attended Duquesne University there, earning a bachelor's degree in history in 1967 and master's degree in modern American history in 1969. With the Vietnam War rumbling and national service a certainty, Hayden resolved to be an officer via the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps. He went on active duty in 1969 as an analyst and briefer for the Strategic Air Command. Following a four-year detour as an instructor and commandant of cadets at Saint Michael's College in Vermont in the late 1970s, he returned to regular duty by attending the Defense Intelligence School and then serving as intelligence chief for the 51st Tactical Fighter Wing in South Korea. He was, at this point, a lowly major.

In relatively rapid succession, Hayden held a series of intelligence and policy jobs through the 1980s and 1990s—air attaché for the U.S. Embassy in Sofia, Bulgaria, a cold war intelligence post; director for defense policy and arms control at the National Security Council; chief of the Secretary of the Air Force Staff Group; and in May 1993, director of the intelligence directorate at headquarters for the U.S. European command. While holding this job, Hayden received his first star in September 1993.

By January 1996, he was commander of the Air Intelligence Agency, and in September 1997, now a two-star general, he became deputy chief of staff for the United Nations Command and U.S. forces in Korea.

Hayden, for most of the time a three-star general, served as director of the National Security Agency, the nation's signals intelligence agency, and chief, Central Security Service, from March 1999 through May 2006. He was named principal deputy director of National Intelligence, and received a fourth star, in April 2005. Hayden was responsible for trying to make work the intelligence oversight function for the Director of National Intelligence. That position, created following 9/11, is supposed to oversee all U.S. intelligence agencies and, theoretically, more reliably grease the flow of critically important information among agencies while winnowing from the deluge of data informational relationships about terrorist activities that might otherwise be missed or overlooked.

Finally, in May 2006, Hayden was named by President Bush to be the director of the CIA. He served in that post for nearly three years, leaving just weeks after President Barack Obama took office.

Today, Hayden is a principal of The Chertoff Group, a strategic security firm formed by Michael Chertoff, the former secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Hayden advises clients on intelligence and cyber-defense issues. Forward spoke with him at his office in Washington, D.C.

Was it your plan as a young man to make a career of intelligence?

No. There was no game plan to take me into any of the agencies that I later became the head of. It was one job at a time, and we made each decision based on the broadly defined welfare of the family. I went into intelligence because it was a natural progression for my academic work in history. So I wanted to be an intelligence officer and the Air Force let me be one for most, but not all, of my career.

Do you see it as one of your tasks now to educate the public about what the intelligence community can or can't do?

I do. The question is, what should you expect from your intelligence services? I actually teach something like this at George Mason University. The first question we ask in the first class of the year is, “Is espionage compatible with a democratic society?”

Is it?

It's not only compatible, it's essential. But then, having established that, how does one do it? Espionage depends on secrecy, just by the very nature of it. Can the nation's intelligence services survive? Those services need secrecy to be successful. Can they survive in a broader political culture that demands more transparency and more accountability from every aspect of national life? That is an unanswered question.

Another point is: What can you expect of [intelligence services]? There are some powerful misunderstandings about what intelligence is and what it does. Let's start with what it is.

There's a cultural attitude that we're Jack Ryan or Jack Bauer or Jason Bourne. When in reality, we're your friends and neighbors. And, by the way, if you live here, we really are your friends and neighbors, even if you don't know who we are because sometimes these relationships are covered.

Now, what do we do and what can you expect from us? I try to inject realism in this. I was asked once how I would rate CIA analysis on a scale of 1 to 10. Well, first of all, eight, nine or 10 aren't on our scale. If we can get to eight, nine or 10, nobody is asking us the question. The answer is already out there through other means.

No, what we get are the real tough questions, the ones that are really difficult to answer. And so, you shouldn't have this overwhelming expectation of infallibility with regard to intelligence analysis. There's a reason why we begin a lot of our reports with the words, “We assess that.,” because it is an intensely human occupation.

A former director of operations of the CIA had a wonderful expression: “What's our job? We steal secrets.” That means that on which we base our judgments, or that which would answer the question we are being asked, someone else is actively, aggressively trying to hide the answer from us. It's that kind of an enterprise.

When you look back at some of the celebrated recent failures of intelligence, how do you evaluate them?

All right. 9/11, a failure of imagination. Not quite a failure of science in terms of the art and science of intelligence, but a failure of imagination. As [former Director of Central Intelligence] George Tenet said, in the summer of 2001 “The system was blinking red; we knew they were coming.” We just didn't appreciate that they were coming here.

We just fit ourselves into the established pattern that this is going to happen in the Persian Gulf, in the Middle East, or against U.S. interests somewhere in the world. We just didn't appreciate that an attack of this character would be mounted inside the homeland.

But let's be fair. George Tenet and the CIA were the only person and only organization in the U.S. government running around with [their] hair on fire in the summer of '01. It wasn't just a failure of intelligence. It was a broader societal lack of appreciation for the threat.

How about Iraq and weapons of mass destruction?

Clean swing and a miss. Now, is there mitigation? Oh, sure. I mean, Saddam [Hussein] was trying to pretend that he did have a program. Not to trick us, but to trick the Iranians. It made it much more difficult for us to determine the truth. We had also fit into some old patterns here. He had lied before. We had underestimated him before. He clearly was busting sanctions. There were tons of dual-use “thises” and “thatses” going into the country, all of which said, based on his past behavior, that he must still be doing that bad thing.

But, as it turned out, he wasn't. But we got some things right. We said that Iraq after the American invasion would be inherently unstable. Yeah, that's pretty spot on.

The trans-Atlantic airline plot in the summer of 2006, multiple wide bodies to go down over the Atlantic between Great Britain and North America.we owned that plot. We had it penetrated. The only argument we had with our British counterparts was, when do we arrest these guys?

And even the events of last Christmas in Times Square. You really have to squint your eyes real narrow to call those failures, because compare that to the kinds of attacks al-Qaida used to be able to mount against the homeland or even, as late as '06, the kinds they were preparing to mount.

And look at Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Detroit guy. This is a guy that al-Qaida hardly knew. Al-Qaida hardly vetted him, al-Qaida hardly trained him because they knew if they helped him very long, we'd pick him up in our network. And we came damned close to doing it. They launched him against us with a weapon that had an incredibly low probability of success because of all the measures we had taken against the weapons that had a higher probability of success.

Now, I don't think that if I had been on the airliner I would say, “Thank God for American intelligence” when this guy was trying to light his underpants. But that's different from the things al-Qaida used to be able to do against us.

Are you suggesting that al-Qaida's teeth have been pulled?

I would never do that. I continue to say they're a dangerous enemy. But we have made al-Qaida less capable of attacking the homeland.

You have said in public appearances that there have been numerous occasions when an attack could have happened, but didn't.

It comes back to public expectations. There have been an awful lot of dogs who have not barked in the last nine years, but it's hard to prove to anybody, particularly somebody who wants to be skeptical, that the reason the dog didn't bark was because of something you did.

One of the arguments about the CIA interrogation program was a line in the Inspector General's report. President Obama decided to make it public, and most of it is now online. It actually says some very good things about the interrogation program in terms of information that it learned.

But one sentence that had been leaked earlier was that no imminent plots have been stopped through the interrogation program. So the urban legend becomes, oh, it didn't work, you didn't stop any plots. And it's just crazy. I got to CIA in '06, and the interrogation program began in '02. Still, in '06, about 50% of what we knew about al-Qaida had come from detainees. It's almost as if the only attack that we got credit for stopping was tackling the sniper on top of the roof as he was chambering the round. If we had stopped the financial flow much earlier, and that made it impossible for him to travel, or had intercepted the recruit in his travels to Pakistan for training, or.you fill in the blank. It doesn't count.

Certainly, you have gone into details with members of the House and Senate intelligence committees?

We do. The best members of the committees, and there are many folks like that, get it and understand it. Yet the oversight of intelligence has never been more politicized than it is today. It's not where we want it to be.

I'll give you an example. The Intelligence Authorization Bill is the bill that the committees use to govern the community. We haven't had an authorization bill for five years. They have been unable to pass a bill because of political differences. To drive home the point, when you have the Speaker of the House of Representatives, No. 3 in the line to the presidency, in answer to a question—“Did CIA lie to you?”—to have her say, “Yes, yes, they misled us, they mislead us all the time,” it's not the happy world we want.

There are inherent tensions, and some of the tensions are intensely political. Some of the tensions are structural. Intelligence agencies work very often on the outer edges of executive prerogative. There is nothing that members of Congress dislike more than the outer edges of executive prerogative. So there's almost this spring-loaded confrontation.

Is President Obama a good president for intelligence?

President Obama has threatened to veto the authorization bill if it demands that he must brief all members of the intelligence committees on covert activities. This is President Obama, Democrat, who ran on the campaign of transparency, telling two committees controlled by his party that if your bill says I no longer have the ability to confine my informing you to the chair and ranking member, I will veto the bill.

It appears as if President Obama is operating along the broad continuum established by his predecessor. There are remarkable similarities between President Obama and President Bush when it comes to the war on terror. The list of things that are continuing is much longer than the list of things that have been stopped. The responsibilities of the office have shaped the response of the incumbent, no matter who he is.


President Obama supports targeted killing as much as President Bush. President Obama does not want the writ of habeas corpus extended to Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, just like President Bush. President Obama has endorsed military commissions, just like President Bush. President Obama has endorsed indefinite detention, just like President Bush. President Obama has claimed the state's secret privilege in a variety of federal court cases, just like President Bush. And the list goes on.

Is the position of the Director of National Intelligence dysfunctional?

It's not dysfunctional, but it is more than a brick shy of a load in doing what people expected the position to do. The law (creating the position) has some serious shortcomings in it. Because of that, the success of the DNI depends on three things, all of them kind of ephemeral, not structured, not in statute.

One is, the DNI has got to be incredibly policy- and politically agile. Secondly, he has to have an unarguably close relationship with the president. And third, he's got to have a good working relationship with the head of CIA because CIA is still critically important to his success.

The DNI lacks sufficient authority in statute to do the things that Congress appears to expect him to do. Now, if you ask me, “Should they go back and amend the law?” I would say “No, let's not look under the hood yet.” Let's get a DNI in there who has a very close relationship with the president and who has a good working relationship with the head of CIA. Let's try that for a while. This structure can work.

Not counting al-Qaida, what are the greatest threats to our security?

Unarguably, it's proliferation questions. When I was in government, people would say, “What are your priorities?” It's a little alphabet soup: CTCPROW. CT, counter-terrorism. CP, counter-proliferation. ROW, rest of world.

In counter-proliferation, bar none, the question is Iran and the Iranian nuclear program.

What can be done about it?

I don't know. It's a real tough policy nut and the clock's running. They're getting closer to their goal of enriching uranium to a high level. They have the capacity to do that, and everything we try doesn't stop them. We try to engage them, and they spin centrifuges. We push them back by sanctioning them, and they continue to spin centrifuges. We tried to deter or dissuade them, and they continue to spin centrifuges.

My personal sense is they want to get to a permanent breakout state right below actually having a weapon. To actually have a weapon or test it shoves the needle into the red, and the international reaction to that might create something more than what they want to absorb. But right below that permanent breakout state will be, I think, just as destabilizing.

What keeps Israel from responding to this?

Don't think this is easy. This would be a very challenging military operation. Don't take it lightly. It's extensive, and some of the sites are buried. But it is very, very far away, and there is no free air space between Israel and Iran. You're always flying over somebody. You just can't see the line. You almost can't get there from here.

And, frankly, severely punishing the Iranian program would require a significant size of a campaign and the question then becomes, is Israel capable of doing much more than a strong raid? How about North Korea?

When I was deputy chief of staff in Korea I was actually our negotiator at Panmunjom with the North Koreans. It was frustrating but fascinating.

Do they respond at all?

Not very well. They live in an alternative universe and, at least from all appearances, no amount of external reality will affect or even influence that alternative universe. That made it very frustrating.

In essence, this is a pathological society. I'm not commenting on individual North Koreans, but the governmental and societal structures. It's pathological in the literal meaning of that word. Over time it will destroy the organism. It's just a question of how much time and how the organism expires. One hopes it will be calmly, in a way that allows for meaningful reengagement and reconstruction.

On a bad day, the organism expires in a fit of violence, which is bad for the peninsula and all of northeast Asia.