Former CIA and NSA Director General Michael Hayden joined me Tuesday morning to discuss his new book “The Assault On Intelligence: American National Security In An Age of Lies”
HH: So glad to be back to talk to General Michael Hayden. He is a retired United States Air Force four-star general, former director of the National Security Agency, principal deputy director of national intelligence, director of the CIA. He’s currently a principal at the Chertoff Group, which is the security consultancy founded by former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. He’s also out at GMU, George Mason University, at the Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy and International Security. He’s been on the program many times, friend of the show when his bestseller, Playing To The Edge, was out. We had a great conversation. He’s got a brand new book out now called The Assault On Intelligence, which I’m holding in my hand, another excellent book. And we’re going to talk about that at length. But I have to warn people, General Hayden is a Steelers fan, and that is to be factored in as we listen to him. General Hayden, welcome back, good to have you.
MH: Oh, thanks so much, Hugh, and you’re right about the Steeler thing. Sorry.
HH: You know, they had that Terrell Edmunds safety, Virginia Tech, first in the draft. I’m not sure that’s, that doesn’t bode well for next year as the sun sets on the Big Ben years.
MH: Well, we’ll see. He’s a good-sized safety. I think they’re going to play him a lot in the box, kind of shore up that missing inside linebacker with Ryan Shazier out.
HH: Okay, let’s start with some headlines, and then I want to go deep into The Assault On Intelligence.
HH: Last hour, Tom Cotton, member of the Senate Intel Committee, told me he expects Gina Haspel to receive a bipartisan recommendation for confirmation from the intelligence committee, and to receive a bipartisan confirmation quickly thereafter. Do you agree with his prediction? Do you concur that it ought to happen that way?
MH: I certainly concur that it ought to happen. And I’ll defer to the Senator, and that is really good news, because I know how contentious, unfairly contentious, this has been for Gina. Hugh, she is the absolute best choice to be the director of CIA. And when people want to bring up the past, I’m happy to re-litigate that if they like. But I want to talk about the present and the future.
HH: I do, too. I just wanted your endorsement. It’s…
HH: …100%? You’re certain about it?
MH: Absolutely. She’s the best athlete available in the draft, to go back to the earlier conversation.
HH: Well, speaking of which, what did you think of Baker Mayfield at number one?
MH: Look, all I pay attention to is the Steelers.
HH: Okay. Let’s go to The Assault On Intelligence. That’s General Hayden’s brand new book. It’s going to be a bestseller. It was preceded by a piece in the New York Times very critical of President Trump. We’re going to dive into that. We’ve got a lot of time. First, let me ask you, you emphasized fact-based intelligence. Facts matter. Would you expand on that?
MH: Sure. I mean, I actually make the point in the book, Hugh, and this is unusual coming from someone like me, that you know, intelligence is a reflection of enlightenment values. Back in the 17th Century, our civilization, our culture, decided we were going to move in the direction of evidence and empiricism and inductive reasoning and humility in the face of complexity, and experimentation, and we were going to try to base our decision making on our best view of what constitutes objective reality. And we’ve seen a movement recently, and it is not President Trump. It’s well beyond that. It’s America and beyond America. The Oxford Dictionary word of the year for 2016 was post-truth, decision making based upon preference and emotion rather than on data. President Trump, I think identified that. And I think he exploited it. He worsens it from time to time, but he didn’t create it. And now, you’ve got evidence-based institutions trying to survive in a world in which frankly evidence isn’t as important as it once was.
HH: Now let’s lead off from that and emphasize facts. And I want to start with a question about the Trump administration as a whole, as opposed to the President.
HH: As a whole, has Team Trump been tough on Russia, and by that, I mean the lethal aid to the Ukrainian resistance, forcing NATO to up its contributions, the attack on the mercenaries in Syria, the 60 diplomats booted out, has the Trump administration as a whole been tough on Russia?
MH: As you framed the question, the only possible answer is yes. Now I can complain about a little tougher here, a little sooner there. I’d like a little more leadership from the President. I’d like to change some presidential rhetoric. But we have taken steps to push back against the Russians, something I complained that the Obama administration wasn’t doing.
HH: Has Trump’s team been tougher on Russia than Obama’s team?
MH: I think what happened is the Trump team has been, but it’s been because it’s added on to what Team Obama had done. Late Team Obama began to support NATO deployments into the Baltic States. Late Team Obama began to push back hard against the Russians in the Ukraine. Now neither team, and this troubles me, Hugh, neither team has pushed back hard against the Russians in Syria where I think we have outsourced the political settlement there to them to the detriment of our interests.
HH: Now I’m going to quote from The Assault On Intelligence in a minute, but I want to begin by quoting from the New York Times piece on April 29th that you authored.
HH: …in assist to the launch of the book in which you argued it is fair to say that the Trump campaign normalized lying to an unprecedented degree. And I got that right, right?
MH: Yeah, that’s right.
HH: All right, so my question is did Secretary Clinton’s tales of the server do the same, her account of the night in Benghazi? In other words, did the lying of both campaigns, in Michael Hayden’s view, offset each other and create this environment which you refer to in the book as being a departure from the empiricism that has driven much of the West since the Enlightenment?
MH: Yeah, so I had issues with both candidates, refused to endorse either. And now that it’s all over, I can reveal I didn’t vote for either of them, either, because I was uncomfortable with both. And a core issue was a relationship to the truth. But I stand by what I said in the Times piece. To an unprecedented degree, I mean, you had the President up there talking about terrorist families fleeing. The reason we can kill terrorist families, which is outrageous in its own right for someone seriously contending to be the president, the reason we can kill terrorist families is because the 9/11 hijacker families left this country, flew away, and then watched what their husbands did on 9/11 on television. No relationship to the truth whatsoever. He just completely made it up. And there were so many things in the campaign that were just made up. Non-fact-based is the way I would put it, Hugh. He appealed to emotion, the appeal to preference, the appeal to the base, the appeal to nativism, the appeal to our fears. And that’s what made me most concerned. I’ll give you another example.
HH: You know, I’m not going to disagree with you, General, because of the famous incident about seeing demonstrators in the streets of New York City, and I guess it was New Jersey. That didn’t happen. But I also point out the whole campaign was, and I had a front row seat at these debates, and I stayed in Switzerland.
MH: Oh, you did, yeah.
HH: The whole thing was a collapse of truth on both sides.
MH: Well, you know, we can go to the fine print. One guy won, and he seems to have brought that approach, the non-fact-based approach. Let me try to be fair here, all right? President Trump makes decisions based on intuition.
MH: He makes decisions based on instinct. He makes decisions on the spur of the moment. He is not a man of reflection. He’s a man of action. And that scares me, because I do think we need reflection in what it is we do. And we need to have our decision making bound by objective reality.
HH: And you point in The Assault On Intelligence to many cases where the President’s intuition is not backed up by deep learning, if any learning. In fact, you quote me in my exchanges with the President.
MH: I do.
HH: I wear a couple of Trump tattoos as a result of this. But we all have those. I want to get to the story of the morning. You wrote, interestingly enough, most of the problem with most books about the Trump years is that they can’t come out fast enough, because the whole scheme changes. But on Page 210, you write about General Kelly. It has become the habit of President Trump, you write, drained of his moral authority by repeated untruths, to rely on that of his key subordinates. And in so doing, he adds the erosion of personal reputation to the damage he is doing to the institution of government. And the example you cited is of Chief of Staff Kelly, who concluded one session with a quote, Trump liked blistering unnecessary, and it turns out inaccurate and ad hominem assault on the Congressman for her alleged behavior. General Kelly, you write, volunteered his reputation to protect the President. He’s in the headlines again this morning, General Hayden.
HH: Denying that he called the President an idiot.
HH: Have you ever heard him call the President an idiot, you yourself?
MH: No, I have not. So you know, I can have no views on that specific. But Hugh, you’ve just brought up the most difficult part of the book for me to write. So I talk about John Kelly. I talk about Tom Bossert. I talk about H.R. McMaster. I talk about other folks who have served in the administration to whom we all owe an immense debt of gratitude because this can’t be easy for them, for the very reasons that you’re suggesting in the last 24 hours’ headlines. But the longer these people exist in this administration, the dynamic you just read takes place, they themselves get drawn into this. Let me give you a quote that my good friend, John McLaughlin, former acting director of CIA said with regard to the broad dynamic. You repeat the lie often enough that the lie becomes the truth, and then good people end up defending the lie. And that, I fear, so that was a hard section for me to write, because I have admiration for these folks, but I just felt as if I had to point that out.
HH: Well, I appreciate it. It’s a very candid book. The Assault On Intelligence is going to shock a lot of people for your candor. I am, however, concerned about this broad dynamic, because I see both sides of it as someone who tries to live in the bridge and try and be friendly with everyone and talk to everyone. But the hyperpartisanship has infected not just Team Trump, but also Team anti-Trump to the point where, and I want to go now to your discussion on Pages 108-111 of the infamous Trump Tower meeting with Jim Comey and the President. And it’s very candid. You write here the intelligence community script then called for Jim Comey to stay behind for one more item to brief Trump on the infamous Steele dossier, a compendium opposition research. There were no precedents to guide the IC leadership on this. Now I’m lucky to be able to talk to you after Mr. Comey has given a number of interview in which it has become quite clear he didn’t brief him on the dossier. He briefed him on one allegation in the dossier, and that he did not reveal the dossier’s providence as having been not just opposition research, but opposition research commissioned by the Democrats. Did Jim Comey blow that meeting? Was that a set up?
MH: No, I don’t think so, and look, I want to talk a little bit more about Jim and me and other folks, too, as to how hard this is to do this in a way that’s constructive, which is what I think is what you were suggesting. I don’t know the fine print of what Jim said when he stayed behind. I do know there was a consensus that Jim ought to do it. I do know that the consensus was under what we call the broad rubric of responsibility to warn. Mr. President-Elect, this is out there, you need to be aware of it. I don’t know specifically how Jim brought it up. And if he was less than complete, then okay, then that’s something that he has to explain. But Hugh, you bring up a really difficult question. I think this is the most norm-busting president in American history. He is not, he does not allow himself to be shaped by the office. He, you know, it’s Trump being Trump. And so you’ve got folks like me who think that’s bad. Those norms exist for a reason. So we push back. But the danger, and I think this is what you’re suggesting, Hugh, the danger is that when we push back, we have to be very careful that we’re not busting our own norms. And so I am quite aware of when I’m on CNN asking a question about this or that from the President, I’m a career military officer and an intelligence professional that owes both him and his office some significant deference. And I fear that from time to time in this dynamic that’s been created, folks, like you said, the anti-Trump crowd pushing back overachieve and bust their own norms. Is it leaking on the part of my old tribe? Is it the courts being a little too enthusiastic to push back on executive orders? Is it journalists being too fixated only on the president rather than a variety of other things going on? I mean, these are all fair questions.
HH: Without knowing the specifics, because you weren’t there, under the rubric of the responsibility to warn, which I understand completely, was it the intelligence community’s responsibility to warn the President that there was ongoing intelligence investigation of his administration, including an open FISA warrant on Mr. Page, Carter Page?
MH: Yeah. My sense of that is no simply because of the sensitivity of the investigation. But now, Hugh, you’ve moved a bit out of my lane into a law enforcement lane. So I have to defer to people more expert on this. But you bring up a core, fundamental issue. We had no roadmap here. This is the first time…
HH: And you write that in The Assault On Intelligence. It’s a first time for everyone.
HH: Let me ask you about, as an intelligence professional, I’m sure you’re keeping up on the news. As an intelligence professional only, would you have trusted Mr. Strzok and Ms. Page to conduct the investigation and assessment of Secretary Clinton given, if you had known their deep hostility to Candidate Trump?
MH: My reaction would have been the same as Mueller’s. Once he became aware of that on multiple levels, you have to disassociate them from the investigation. Number one, there may be a danger, although I’d have to know the individuals better to see if it would infect their investigation. But second level is obvious. The appearance of that taints the investigation, and so they have to be detached. So I understand by Bob did that immediately.
HH: One last question about Director Comey, and I want to go back to Iran and North Korea. He’s admitted in one of his interviews, I think it was with Jake Tapper. He had an assumption that Secretary Clinton was going to win, and that influenced his handling of the investigation into Mr. Trump. Do you find that troubling, because that indicates an intelligence community with a thumb on the scales of elections?
MH: I find the whole dynamic troubling. Again, I try to be understanding for Jim, because there’s no roadmap, no precedent. But frankly, I think, you know, that I think the safest place for him in the Bureau was to play publicly at all with regard to their investigation.
HH: That’s what most of us who have any DOJ background were so shocked by. Let’s go to the Iran deal. You wrote in your New York Times op-ed piece the President continues to attack the Iranian nuclear deal, and is likely to end it even in the face of intelligence that Iran has not committed a material breach of the compact, that the deal makes it more difficult for Iran to build a weapon, and it gives us visibility into the nuclear program. I just had on Dr. Oren, deputy prime minister of Israel, for, who know know.
HH: I know you know Dr. Oren from his time as an ambassador. He wants this deal over. All of Israel wants this deal over. Did the Mossad raid, well, first of all, as a professional, what was your assessment of the Mossad action? And second, does it change your opinion at all?
MH: Yeah, number one, Mossad always impresses.
MH: And so good on them. But with regard to what they found, Hugh, they probably gave a lot more enriching detail, no pun intended, to the Iranian nuclear activity. But it doesn’t change the plotline. We told President Bush in ’07 that the Iranians had stopped one aspect of the program – building the actual weapon, in 2003. And I am fond of saying, you can imagine how tough a conversation that was with the Vice President and the President, but I am fond of saying, and I used this line on the President and Vice President, I said and sir, we’re telling you this not because we have an absence of evidence that they’re working on them. we have evidence of absence that they’re not working on it. And so with a high confidence judgment, we said they knocked it off. Now fast forward. We negotiated with the Iranians. We gave them the deal in which I had a lot of gas with, despite what I wrote in the New York Times on Sunday. One of the things I had gas about was what was called PMD’s, previous military dimensions. In other words, make the Iranians come clean about what they were doing before 2003. The Iranians didn’t, and we let them get away with that lie. That’s the lie that the Prime Minister pointed out yesterday, that that lie was already baked into the agreement.
HH: Now that leaves us to the question of what to do next. And the Prime Minister yesterday said Iran lied big time. Iran is brazenly lying when it said it never had a nuclear weapons program. And Dr. Oren argues tear down the deal, start over. Others say, President Macron and Prime Minister Merkel, build upon what is a flawed deal. I’m actually of the school you have to go back to the foundation and start over, and I want out of this deal and to start over. What do you think in light of, I mean, this is a massive amount of lying. I don’t know how we ever trust them.
MH: Well, I mean, that’s right, and we knew they were lying when we signed the first deal. And again, I had my problems with it. But we knew they were lying and tried to create, you know, an oversight regime that would allow us to detect. I’m not there for pushing the plunger on the deal. This has parked the nuclear problem for a time being, and I get it, for a time being, over here. I think what’s really driving the issue for President Trump, and for the Israelis especially, Hugh, is all the other stuff that the Iranians are doing throughout the region. And so I would be an enthusiast for pushing back against the Iranians in Iraq, in Syria, in Yemen. You realize that Iran right now is in the ascendance in four Sunni Arab capitals – Sana, Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut. And so take that, all right? Take the President’s concern over the deal, which I’m trying to say I don’t know that we should be focused on that, and now throw in the President’s statement two or three weeks ago, we’re leaving Syria, the job’s done, we’re coming home, which in effect, gives the battlefield to the Iranians and their Russian friends. That’s where I would push.
HH: I agree with you on this. And I am hopeful that General Mattis, Secretary Pompeo, Director Haspel and John Bolton all persuade him of that point. Let me go back to your book, The Assault On Intelligence. I’m talking with General Michael Hayden, former CIA director, former NSA director, four-star Air Force general, friend of the show and one of America’s, I think, most honored middle of the roaders. And on Page 247, you write there now quite a few former intelligence officials on the 24/7 news network – Phil Mudd, Mike Morell, Jeremy Bash, John McLaughlin, Leon Panetta, Jim Clapper, John Brennan, yourself.
HH: Mike Pompeo complained, you note, there are an awful lot of former CIA talking heads on TV.
HH: This is really unprecedented, General Hayden. And it goes to the problem of our age, is we don’t know who to believe.
MH: And that’s probably a prime motivator for most of the people on your list in order to go out there and try, I can speak for myself, Hugh, to try in the most objective way to give the facts to the American people so that they can make their own decisions about what’s going on. If we’re not out there, if we’re not out there, Hugh, people who don’t know what they’re talking about are controlling the dialogue and the narrative.
HH: Which theoretically, and I want to make this a theoretical, not a real question for you, General Hayden, would be a bigger crisis – an anti-democratic elite influencing elections from behind very heavy curtains, or an inexperienced and uncurious president surrounded by very competent people? It’s Chance the Gardener versus the Iranian state within a state hypo. Which is worse?
MH: Well, you know, you said the President’s surrounded by very experience people. The point of the book, Hugh, is how much those people are attached to the President’s rhetoric, and particularly the President’s decision making. I was willing to let this ride for a while, because he really did pick a very strong team. And I wanted to know can this team help the President be more successful than he otherwise would be. But as time goes on, he seems to be acting more independently from that team, and Hugh, changing that team to be comprised of people who more sound and think like him. And that’s what concerns me.
HH: Do you have confidence in General Mattis, Secretary Pompeo, Gina Haspel and John Bolton, and Dan Coats as the big five?
MH: I do. These are all professionals. I mean, I could go through each one of them and give you Mike Hayden’s view as to strengths and weaknesses. But in general, that is an experienced, talented team. But look, the President got rid of an experienced, talented guy in H.R. McMaster largely because H.R. was trying to do what it is you expect that team to do, which is to tee things up to the President to help him make the best possible decisions. And again, the great fear is the President’s decision making is detached from the government that’s there to serve him.
HH: All right, let me ask you a little bit, a couple of last questions, because The Assault On Intelligence has got to be read in detail. It’s a withering critique of Team Trump and the President, but it comes with balance that is necessary.
MH: Thank you for saying that.
HH: I did not see in there…
MH: You know, I don’t, you know, this is not about condemning the President. What I point out at the beginning is the President is representative of broader trends within America. The problem is us, Hugh, not the President, not even the Russians.
HH: Oh, I’ve got so many issues. I think that this actually goes back to Ben Rhodes working the media on the Iran deal.
HH: And I think it’s the original sin, and he admitted to it, right…
HH: …that he created the media into an echo chamber. And I’m afraid of the inner ring, as C.S. Lewis called it, influencing the information flow to the American people. Do you get my bigger problem?
MH: Oh, I do. I do. And then now we’re back to what of Hayden and other folks like that go out on TV. And I’ll speak for myself, Hugh. When I on there, I sometimes get questions I don’t want to answer, and I don’t answer them. I view myself as the fact witness. And I think the more people can go out there and do that, the better chances we have for avoiding some of the dangers you’re suggesting.
HH: Well, if they do both sides, and like you do, here’s my problem with what’s going on. You’ve got some people in the Never Trump world like Matt Dowd, Bill Kristol, they’re friends of mine. They can never say anything good about Trump. I think it’s a mortal sin, in their view. You’ve got some very smart people who occasionally say good things and bad things – Jonah Goldberg, Bret Stephens, yourself, but the revenue model of media is now built on being branded pro or anti-Trump. That’s going to pass, because as Dick Cheney once told me, you only get eight years even at the best. But what won’t easily pass is this countryside versus the Capitol deep, we saw it at the White House Correspondents Dinner. You saw it when you went to Pittsburgh to talk to your old Steelers buddies.
HH: It’s like the late Roman Republic during the Italian war, right? The two camps, and never shall the two meet.
MH: And Hugh, you’ve got it. And what I try to explain in the book when we have an issue now, we don’t argue the issue. We appeal to identity. We, the President does that. I think some of the networks do that. Other commentators do that. So rather than arguing the facts and the data, you appeal to emotion, you appeal to feeling, you appeal to grievance, and then you condemn the other side as being unworthy and illegitimate. That is the pattern of American dialogue right now. And that’s what concerns me. That’s the essence of post-truthism.
HH: Okay, so my last two questions. One is specific, and one is general. Imran Awan, 37, arrested by FBI agents, the former Debbie Wasserman-Schultz agent, this has raised a lot of eyebrows as to what the heck that case is about. Have you followed it, General Hayden?
MH: I have not. I have not, and you’re going to make me go online here soon and get some background. I’m sorry.
HH: All right. It’s a weird deal. And then I always reject any caller or guest who uses the term deep state with regards to the United States, because I was part of the Justice Department counterintelligence operation for a while.
HH: And there is no deep state in America. There are professionals, there’s an administrative state that’s too big on the domestic side, but they’re professionals. But what do you say to people who are convinced that the Director Brennan-led CIA was involved in politics, that the Director Comey FBI was involved in politics, that they were trying very hard to get Secretary Clinton elected? Because if that takes hold, people believe that, we’ll never had another legitimate election in America.
MH: I understand. And going back to my earlier point, Hugh, that folks like me who are fearful with the norms being busted cannot break our own norms in pushing back, and so I think we have something to offer, but we have to be very careful. We cannot, we have to work hard to avoid becoming part of the problem rather than maybe part of the solution. But I come back to the depth of our political differences. They’re not, no longer over issues. They are attached to identity. And the more folks like you and me, and I appreciate your comment, too, about the scars you have for some of the things that you’ve brought up, the more we can pull this into the center, I think the healthier our future will become. And by the way, Hugh, you and I have just talked for about 30 minutes, and we haven’t brought in the Russians, really, very much. Although they’re important, the core of this issue is us, not them. You know, they tried to do what it is they did to us to Norway, but it doesn’t take, because Norway’s not suffering the way our society is.
HH: And you know, they’ve been trying, I’ll extend this one more time, back in my Reagan Justice Department days when I was processing FISA applications for Bill Smith and Ed Meese, they’ve being doing this a long time. And that’s why the Wikileaks thing did not fool me for a second. That was an FSB front from the beginning. And I called it as such during the election.
HH: What the problem seems to be is that people want, they really want to find that Donald Trump was colluding as opposed to wanting to find the opposite. That’s the problem for me, General.
MH: No, I understand, and again, if we can try to push the conversation to the fact-based center, go where the evidence takes us, without prejudgment or precondition, and that’s what I was fearful of. That’s the book. That’s fact-based institutions trying to survive in a post-truth world.
HH: The Assault On Intelligence is the book. American National Security In An Age of Lies. General Hayden, thank you. As always, wonderful effort, great conversation.
MH: Thank you, Hugh.
End of interview.