General Michael Hayden Discusses the New Face of Espionage

by Wesley Swanson


Faisal Shazhad, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi: the names of these terrorist actors against the United States roll off the lips of native Pittsburgher General Michael Hayden as easily as the Steelers’ front four.

On November 18, the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh hosted the former Director of both the CIA and NSA at a Duquesne Club policy discussion and luncheon entitled The John T. Ryan Memorial Lecture: Security, Privacy, Surveillance . . . and You, which focused on the delicate balance between the essential homeland function of espionage and its effect on the personal privacy of every American.

Prior to the lecture, Gen. Hayden was gracious enough to answer a few personal questions about his background during a pre-lecture reception. Hayden’s resume paints a portrait of a man born to service. Commissioned as an Air Force officer straight out of college, Hayden quickly entered the world of intelligence. In Cold War 1984, as an air attaché for the US embassy in Bulgaria – a position he described as “second best job I’ve ever had” and surpassed only by Director of the CIA – Hayden operated as a classic “spy”, collecting information through surveillance and eavesdropping. Trained to speak the obscure language by the military, his job was to “observe and report” on Bulgarian citizens.

Rising through the ranks, Hayden was eventually tapped to become the Director of the NSA during the Clinton administration, and later, the Director of the CIA under George W. Bush – the first person to hold both positions. Hayden remains modest. “Life demands; and then you have to respond,” he said, explaining he never pursued either job. When duty called, he did what was necessary.

Sometimes, however, the definition of “necessity” changes and intelligence officers are left out in the cold. In his subsequent policy speech, the general explained the intelligence community is now challenged with three major paradigm shifts. “Our threat is changing, our technology is changing, and our political culture is changing,” he said.

Hayden waxed nostalgic, describing when conflict was between nation states (specifically, the Soviets and Americans) and involved classic military and intelligence strategies. It was a time when, Hayden said with amusement, “I didn’t lose any sleep over a fanatic living in a cave in the Hindu Kush.” However, recent technological and social advances have caused a sea-change, empowering the public and providing non-state terrorist and criminal groups greater ability to attack because they possess comparable influence to their host government. “Most of the things threatening you are the byproduct of state weakness,” Hayden said, listing flashpoint locations in the War on Terror fitting the bill. The common thread, he claimed, is the lack of “effective government.” American difficulties in these regions exist because the entire national security apparatus is designed to take on other states instead of individuals and has become bent-out-of-shape accommodating these new threats. Fighting enemy combatants face-to-face, he said, as in classical war, has turned into drone strike campaigns in Pakistan well outside the official theater of combat.

Hayden again turned to history, explaining how advances in technology are affecting intelligence practices. During the Cold War, intelligence officers in the NSA commonly intercepted communications between Moscow and Soviet ICBM bases scouring for orders to fire on the US. This surveillance, Hayden said, never met a shred of protest from civil libertarians – and neither should today’s. He draws this comparison: “Today’s equivalent is Al-Qaeda email traffic on the same plane as yours and mine.” The only way to monitor the threat is to watch the medium used, just like the NSA during the Cold War. The only difference today, he reasoned, is that some private information is inadvertently gathered in the process. Why should Americans have a problem with the NSA using the same intelligence strategy used against Soviet aggression and threat of nuclear war? The public should be better educated to understand the type of personal data gathered is mostly irrelevant to actual individual privacy.

To the growing number of Americans that disagree and believe activists such as Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning are heroes rather than traitors, the General’s explanation doesn’t suffice. This cultural shift, Hayden says, is the most important emerging paradigm in modern intelligence gathering. Society is demanding an unprecedented level of transparency and accountability from homeland security agencies, prompting Hayden to ask, “Will America be able to conduct espionage, which requires secrecy for success in the future?”

The difficulty is in the nature of the complaint. Hayden frankly proclaimed that today’s surveillance measures are categorically legal and exhibit Madisonian fulfillment: approval by all three branches of government. The problem is one of propriety – whether it is acceptable, even moral, to trade privacy for safety. Can national security bear reforms that essentially require intelligence agencies to ask suspects for permission to spy on them? Hayden submits, “I personally don’t know how you get to that conversation without destroying espionage.”

Hayden concluded by calling the room to action, asking the public to give intelligence a chance. “You’ve got to be involved with this,” he said, referencing political choice. “We’ll live with whatever you decide, but you’ve got to play.” A thinly-veiled football reference? Hayden confirmed during a lengthy question-and-answer session that his visit was timed to coincide with the previous day’s Steelers’ game. “I’ll be back for the play-offs,” he promised.

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