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Former CIA and NSA Director General Michael Hayden (UAF ret) On His New Book “Playing To The Edge”

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General Michael Hayden was previously not only an air force general but also director of the NSA and the CIA.  His riveting new memoir, Playing To The Edge: American Intelligence In The Age of Terror, takes you as far inside those agencies as possible for a non-classified book to reach.  He joined me on today’s program:





HH: This song is the only song I saw referenced in Michael Hayden’s entire book, Playing To The Edge. The former director of the National Security Agency and CIA joins me now to talk about Playing To The Edge. General Hayden, welcome, it’s great to have you on the Hugh Hewitt Show.

MH: Hugh, thanks very much, and my congratulations on the choice of music. That brings back good memories.

HH: It is, you know, tell people why it’s in Playing To The Edge, and how it played a role at the NSA.

MH: Sure. After 9/11, I went to visit CIA, and there were bumper stickers all over the place that simply said let’s roll, which are the final words of one of the passengers on the flight that went down in Pennsylvania. And that’s a great motto for an organization like CIA that goes forward. But NSA does its stuff in garrison. So I was trying to think of some unifying theme, and my wife, Jeanine and I were watching a benefit concert not long after 9/11, and we heard that song, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, I Won’t Back Down, and she turned to me and said that’s your theme. And I brought it back to NSA the next day, and we used that in all of our gatherings. We plastered our walls with the title of the song for the next several years.

HH: Well, I think it is a magnificent opening to Playing To The Edge, but I’ve got to clear the air at the beginning. I’m doing something unprecedented on the Hugh Hewitt Show. I am a lifelong Cleveland Browns fan and a season ticket holder to four in Cleveland Stadium, at First Energy Stadium. You are from the dark side. And I am helping you sell books as a Steelers fan, and not just a Steelers fan. There are more Steelers references in Playing To The Edge than in their annual program guide.

MH: Well, you know, we all have to be true to our roots, Hugh, and I’m a north side Pittsburgher, born and bled black and gold, and look, let me side with Cleveland for a moment. I think it was horrible what Art Modell did to you city.

HH: Oh, that’s the man who must not be named. That’s like Edward Snowden on this show.

MH: Well, sorry.

HH: (laughing) You know, but you are a Pittsburgher, and a Pittsburghian. And what, did you go to Catholic school in Pittsburgh?

MH: I did. I went to St. Peter’s Grade School, North Catholic High School, Duquesne University. Hugh, I mentioned in the book the first classroom I entered in my life that didn’t have a crucifix in it was when I was in America’s Air Force.

HH: You see, I grew up about 50 miles from you and did the whole Catholic thing as well, so we speak the same language. But you’re on the dark side. So General Hayden, I want to start with news and then dive deep into Playing To The Edge, which I think is a must-read book for people.

MH: Thank you.

HH: But I want to ask you at the beginning about the Apple controversy, and full disclosures, one of my law partners, former Judge Stephen Larson, is representing the families of the victims in the San Bernardino massacre, pro bono, to try and get Apple to unlock that phone. What’s your opinion of that?

MH: So complicated issue, and frankly, Hugh, this kind of issue permeates my book. It’s all gray.

HH: Yup.

MH: You know, not forces of light, forces of darkness. Tough questions for good people to respond. So here’s my approach. The broad Apple approach, which absolutely opposes the FBI’s command to put back doors universally into encryption, I agree with. I actually think America is a safer place, not just a more private place. That’s a separate argument. America is a safer place with unbreakable end to end encryption. And so I support Tim Cook there, and I opposed Jim Comey. I don’t know that this issue is that, Hugh. This looks like a one-off specific operational requirement against a unique device for a limited purpose and a limited time. And so my view on this is on this particular case, I side with the FBI. And if Tim Cook disagrees with me, the burden of proof is on him to prove that this is inevitably going to lead to that. And that’s where I am. And I’ve got to admit, Hugh, I’m sitting here in Manhattan, and the U.S. Attorney here, Mr. Vance, is saying to Apple, and as soon as you’re done with that one telephone in California, I’ve got 175 in a room back here. That, I think undercuts Director Comey’s argument about this being a one-off. But right now, I’m shading in the direction of the Bureau for this phone, for this purpose.

HH: Now General Hayden, one of the things that permeates Playing To The Edge is the transitory nature of intelligence. You’ve got to act on it.

MH: Right.

HH: And that’s what is frustrating to me, is it’s been weeks since that massacre. If there’s data on that phone, it grows less useful by the day.

MH: Oh, no, absolutely right, and to round this out, Hugh, it is, to the best of my knowledge, Apple has actually done similar things like this in the past. And it actually stuns me that Apple, and again, I support their broader proposition that Apple has chosen to engage this issue on this point.

HH: All right, a second news issue, and then we’re going to dive into the years beginning before 9/11 right up to the time you left the Agency and to the present. But I have to ask you about Mrs. Clinton’s server, the former Secretary of State, of course, maintained the home brew server. Mike Morell on this show confirmed when I said it had to have been breached in real time by hostiles, and he said yeah. And then former Secretary of Defense Gates told me he thought there was a high probability that the Russians and others had breached that security.

MH: Sure.

HH: What do you think, Director Hayden?

MH: Hugh, let me just give you the straight from the heart answer. I would lose respect. I would lose all respect for scores of intelligence services around the world if they did not have all the access they wanted to that server.

HH: In real time?

MH: You know, even a server like that in the private sector isn’t that easy of a target. You have to work against it. But let me turn that on its head just a little bit, Hugh. If I were still at NSA, and someone came to me and said we just discovered that the Russian foreign minister has a foreign server. Now it’s just unclassified email on it, but we think we can get into it. Believe me, we’d have been after that in a heartbeat. I suspect a bunch of others have done the same.

HH: Given what we now know has been classified to have been on that, including a sensitive compartment information, SAP programs, are you appalled?

MH: I’m more disappointed than appalled, and here’s how I explain it publicly and to myself, Hugh. Once you set it up this way, it’s like that old TV show. This is Breaking Bad. You don’t have to be stupid, immoral, illegal or lazy for this to end up in a very unhappy place once you set the system up for the Secretary of State’s official emails to end up in a private server. I just can’t imagine why or how that was permitted to take place.

HH: If you had had a deputy either at NSA or at CIA, deputy direct of CIA, deputy director of NSA, who had a home brew server like this, would you have had them fired and disciplined?

MH: Yeah, you know, well first of all, none of my deputies would have ever done this. And let me just turn that on its head, too. Let’s say that I’m the sinner here. And I had two deputies – Bill Black at NSA and Steve Kappes over at CIA. They, Hugh, would not have let me do this. They would have walked in and said Mike, I love you like a brother, this isn’t going to happen. And it’s really unfortunate that that didn’t happen at State Department.

HH: Now I don’t know if you’ve declared in the presidential race. Have you, yet, General Hayden?

MH: I was an announced advisor to Governor Bush, and now I’m, I guess I would be what’s called in sports terms a free agent.

HH: A free agent, so you have not yet signed with a new team.

MH: I have not.

HH: Okay, and among those choices that are out there, are all of them fluent to the extent that you want them to be in matters of intelligence gathering?

MH: Oh, my, no. And in fact, one of the disappointments in the campaign, maybe a little more on the Republican side just because of the dynamics, Hugh, and I know you’ve witnessed this, than on the Democratic side, but it’s not great on either side of the ball. The discussions here are of complex issues, again, back to the theme of the book. This is all hard. This is all shades of gray. When it’s pushed down to the level of bumper stickers, that is something that’s not in the service of the American state or of American security, and we really have pushed this down to bumper stickers, in most cases.

HH: I’ll be right back with General Michael Hayden, former director of the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency.

— – — –

HH: Let me skip to the back of it, and then we’ll go back to the beginning. Edward Snowden, quoting Page 421, “I am no doubt betraying my own background when I say,” you write, “that I think Snowden is an incredibly naïve, hopelessly narcissistic, and insufferably self-important defector.” Is he also a traitor?

MH: I’ve never used the word traitor. It’s a narrow, legal definition, Hugh. So I stick with defector. I will add, however, he betrayed the community of which he was a part. I tell a story about Bletchley Park in the book.

HH: Yup, yup.

MH: You know, there’s a young man who worked at Bletchley, you know, Enigma and breaking the German code and all that? Goes home after the war and his parents shun him, because they thought he had accepted some posh administration job north of London that was safe. That young man let his parents go to their grave because he would not, he would not tell them what he did as part of the war effort. That’s the culture of the community that Edward Snowden betrayed. These people keep the secrets. And so you can imagine the depth of the emotion that that kind of betrayal created in that sort of community.

HH: Now General, for a couple of years, ’84 and ’85, I had all the SCI clearances and was a special assistant to Bill Smith, and then Ed Meese, for FISA. So I know that culture a little bit, and I have told people ever since that stuff that I had, if I left it on my desk, I’d be disciplined. If I took it home, I’d be fired, and if I gave it to someone, I’d be prosecuted.

MH: Right.

HH: Isn’t that what we have to look at with the Clinton server and the material that’s floating around out there now?

MH: Well, you know, I’ll let the facts take us where they will. We’ve mentioned Jim Comey before, and his view, and how I agree sometimes and disagree others? I have complete faith in the director of the FBI in this one, Hugh.

HH: I’m interested, because in the…

MH: I think…

HH: In the book, you have quite a back and forth with him when it comes to the reauthorization of the metadata.

MH: Yes, I do. Yup, I do. And I lay it out. And Jim and I were on the other side of this issue, all right? I also point out in the book that at the height of the dispute, and this is the, you know, the breathless run up the stairs at G.W. Hospital in March of 2004.

HH: Yeah.

MH: At the height of that dispute, Jim got up at the end of a very contentious meeting and went out of his way to go over and shake my hand, that it wasn’t personal, it was principled. And I think he will have this commitment to principle when we finally resolve the email server question.

HH: And he had threatened to resign then, so I assume that if he believes a prosecution ought to be brought against any and all involved in the server, he will resign of that prosecution is not brought. Do you agree with me on that?

MH: I, look, based upon his record, he stands by his principles.

HH: All right, now let me go to the OPM attack. I also was the deputy director of OPM back in the day in the Reagan years, and we only had paper stuff. But they got it all now. Do you think we have responded appropriately to the OPM hack, Director Hayden?

MH: In terms of responding to the Chinese?

HH: Yes.

MH: Or responding by getting smarter about our own defenses?

HH: Well, let’s do both.

MH: Yeah.

HH: Let’s do Chinese and what we’re doing.

MH: Yeah, you know, actually, with regard to the Chinese and the OPM hack, by the way, our government has not officially confirmed that, but my sense is who else would have done this?

HH: Correct.

MH: I actually viewed that to be fair espionage game. I am on record as saying that if I could have stole the equivalent of that data from China, and keep in mind, Hugh, what we’re talking about here, we’re talking about detailed information on people who have access to government secrets. I mean, that’s a treasure trove. And so fundamentally, my take on that is not shame on China. My take on that is shame on us, and I point out that if I had the opportunity to do that against a country like China, I would have done it. And here’s the punch line, Hugh. I wouldn’t have had to go downtown to get permission. That’s what we expect espionage services to do. And so in this case, I got a lot of other problems with China, and I think we’ve got to respond forcefully. But in this case, I think the issue was us and our abject failure to protect the important information. Actually, Hugh, since you had a clearance, of you and me still sitting in those servers.

HH: Yeah, now I’ve got to ask you, though, given your understanding of what’s going on in the government, are we taking the remedial steps that need to be taken across the government?

MH: You know, as an Air Force guy, the way I would describe it, Hugh, is that the vector is correct, and we are sorely wanting in thrust. We are…

HH: For a Steelers fan, that’s was pretty impressive.

MH: …far too slow about this. (laughing)

HH: That was very impressive for a Steelers fan. We also slow things down for them. That was, I was very impressed with that. How about the Pentagon, which is, I know from people inside the building and out, they are subject to constant attacks from abroad. Do you think their game is at the level it needs to be?

MH: Actually, you know, this may be the one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind, all right? But actually, American defense networks are better protected than .com or .org or .edu. And that’s why a lot, if not most of the cyber theft that goes on, and here I am blaming the Chinese, they’re going after these less well-defended networks, and they are extracting from them, Hugh, information of national security value, even if it might not be technically classified.

HH: I’ll be right back with Michael Hayden.

— – – – –

HH: I’ve got to begin by saying I am amazed that you had the patience to get through the clearance to publish this book. How long did this take to get cleared?

MH: Well, actually, Hugh, because of my personal background, I had to have it cleared by the Publications Review Boards of NSA, CIA, and the DNI. And let me just characterize NSA as being thorough and efficient, whereas CIA was merely thorough.

HH: (laughing)

MH: And it took a long time. But Hugh, at the end of the day, let me be very candid. First of all, I somewhat know my limits, given my experience. But I did push the edges, not to paraphrase the book, and at the end of the day, I got to say almost everything I wanted to say, although occasionally I had to change how I said it. And so I am quite happy that what I have here is a decent picture. I mean, I characterize the book as pulling back the veil on American intelligence, and inviting my countrymen behind the vault door to actually see the character and the activity of the people who are defending them.

HH: And at the end of the book, and I’ll come back to the beginning and we’ll march through it in the second hour of the program. You talk about how CIA directors do not often gather, sometimes they do, and they came together in opposition to the release of the memos and to the reopening of prosecutions. But John Brennan is the director, and you worked with John Brennan, and when he was passed over the first time, you were there and he wasn’t taking a lot of solace, and you had to count to ten. It’s an interesting scene. But nevertheless, did you ever had to call Brennan and say Brennan, come on, let me book out?

MH: Oh, no, no, no. I did not. I actually worked very productively with the board. And frankly, I think that people at the Agency wanted their story told clearly, Hugh, sensitive to not revealing American secrets. And they knew they had in me, and this is too self-referential, so I apologize, but they knew that had in me someone who knew them, and also pretty much knew the limits of how he could and what he could say about them. And so this was in the spirit of cooperation and the spirit of negotiation. It just took a long time.

HH: Now I must say, the people who are in trouble because of this book are intelligence agencies hostile to the United States that didn’t realize the NSA was down and dark for many, many days early in your tenure.

MH: Yeah.

HH: Don’t you think there are some people who are getting called into offices when they read Playing To The Edge and being asked why we didn’t know that at the time?

MH: Well, I certainly hope so, because that means we kept the secret. And what you’re referring to, Hugh, is the first chapter of the book…

HH: Yup.

MH: …when NSA went belly up. Its IT system collapsed for about three and a half days.

HH: That’s so spooky.

MH: Oh, no, and I mean, let me tell you the message to the workforce. And I put this in the book. But we were blessed, Hugh, the hand of God, we actually had a blizzard when this happened. So we didn’t have our workforce in for about a day and a half. And when they came in, I had a town meeting, and I actually said you know, there are secrets and there are secrets. And this is secret. This is not the back half of a sentence that begins over the dishes tonight, Honey, you won’t believe what happened to me at work today. America’s enemies cannot know that America can’t hear them right now.

HH: You know what I want to comment on at this point, General Stanley McChrystal is in your book as helping, as thanking you for helping his team get al-Zarqawi back when it did. But he was in my studio when Team Of Teams came out, and I note the similarity. You held a lot of transparent town hall meetings across silos as did McChrystal, which is very shocking to me given the nature of the material you were doing. You have high trust environments with lots of people, even though the data is extremely sensitive.

MH: Yeah, Hugh, you have to. We cannot do this anymore as a hierarchy. This is a bit of a long story, but let me tell it. Every Thursday morning, I got to tell George Bush about sensitive collection and covert action of CIA. I gave him a weekly update. You can imagine what the headquarters looked like on Wednesday afternoon, Hugh.

HH: Yeah.

MH: You’ve been in government. Brief him on this, brief him on that. We went through multiple iterations, and finally, I didn’t decide until about 7:00 Thursday morning this is ready for prime time, this is not ready for prime time. And then I went in and briefed President Bush at 8:00. Hugh, more than 50% of the things I told George Bush about on Thursday morning I learned about for the first time Wednesday afternoon.

HH: Wow.

MH: You cannot conduct espionage with full stick and rudder control from the 7th deck at Langley. You’ve got to let people have freedom of action.

HH: And while we’re on him, you have a very interesting portrait of George W. Bush in this book, especially towards the end, as being engaged, amiable and a learner through conservation.

MH: Right.

HH: And although he was a voracious reader, as I know from Rove and from talking to W. myself, and having had a couple of those conversations as a media guy, but you are an intelligence pro. And would you say that he and Cheney were as involved as any president and vice president could have been in understanding what the threat matrix was?

MH: I actually said that this team was the golden age of intelligence when it comes down to the attention of the key policy makers to what intelligence had to say. They were incredibly engaged and involved in it, and actually, Hugh, it actually kind of fed a story about the Vice President that he was trying to get intel to cook the books.

HH: Right. Oh, that’s in the book, yeah.

MH: And yeah, and I point out, no, no, that wasn’t the case at all. He just knew his stuff.

HH: Yeah.

MH: And so, you know, tough questions, that doesn’t comprise cooking the books.

HH: And at the close of all of this, you also say, and I want to make sure I get the exactly quote on Page 49, because it will come up perhaps in the debate I’m a participant on, on Thursday night.

MH: Okay.

HH: “We all thought there was a case for weapons of mass destruction,” Page 49, beginning and end of story.

MH: Yeah, yeah, I actually come very clean and bet the forgiveness of the court and the American people, Hugh. We got it wrong. We thought they had weapons of mass destruction. I can explain why. I mean, we had lowballed them earlier after the first Gulf War, and discovered he was much further along. Saddam was trying to pretend he had a program, because he wanted to keep the Iranians at bay. We had unreliable sources. We got this wrong. And look, I know this was a welcome message by our political leadership, but they didn’t pressure us to create this message. They didn’t have to. That was what we believed. And actually, Hugh, I point out in the book that as bad as that was, that wasn’t our, my, greatest sin. Our language and our key judgments on the NIE, in addition to saying things that were wrong, said things at a confidence level that even we didn’t believe we had. We didn’t communicate our ambiguity to our client.

HH: Even though I will say in your defense, and you write about how you had Secretary Powell withdraw one of the transcript experts from his United Nations…

MH: Right.

HH: Because it was not good enough, would have misled, and would have not have had integrity. That’s why I like this book, and I think people, we’ll come back next hour, America, Playing To The Edge.

— – – – —

HH: At the last debate, Donald Trump said George W. Bush lied. When we left our conversation with Michael Hayden, former director of the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency, and the author of the brand new book, Playing To The Edge, he was just affirming that while they were very, very wrong, nobody lied. Is that a fair summary, General Hayden?

MH: That is absolutely accurate, Hugh, and it’s a shame that anyone that feels, thinks so darkly of the Bush administration or the American government to see the alternative story actually gets legs.

HH: Now what do you make of the Trump campaign? I mean, I want to come back to Playing To The Edge, but let me just get a quick news headline here. What does the former director of the CIA think about Donald Trump?

MH: I am disappointed that candidate Trump has oversimplified a whole bunch of very complex international issues. And I have the firm hope that if candidate Trump becomes President Trump, he will not govern based upon some of the things he’s said as a candidate.

HH: Well said. Now I also want to rescue from history, because I remember him as a famous figure when I was a young Reaganaut, Bobby Ray Inman. And you spend some time with him when you take over NSA.

MH: Yeah.

HH: Would you tell, I like patriots to be recalled. Would you tell people about him?

NH: Look, I actually mention in the book, Hugh, that when you say the word Bobby Ray Inman, at NSA, the surrounding audience responds the way the townsfolks did in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles when somebody mentioned Randolph Scott, okay?

HH: Yeah.

NH: Bobby Ray is the most revered former director. And after I became director, I made the necessary pilgrimage to Austin to seek Admiral Inman’s counsel. And he gave me one concrete piece of advice that I actually put in the book. He said, “Mike, they’re going to want to put you in a sedan chair and carry you around like Pharaoh, but keep you away from any serious decision making. You’ve got to fight that.

HH: Now young officers can take away from this book, I think, as well, an admonition to realize they never know where they’re going to end up, because you were sitting in Seoul, Korea when you ended up behind the NSA big desk. And that was not what you had planned.

MH: Oh, no, not at all. And in fact, not even what the Air Force had planned. Mike Ryan, the chief of staff, called me up and said, “Mikey,” we knew one another from the wars in the Balkans, “Mikey, we’re going to bring you back, we’re going to run you for NSA. You’re really not well-suited for that job, you won’t get it, but people will get familiar with you. After all, Mikey, you’re in Korea, and then we’ll run you for the DIA job next summer.” I came back and interviewed. I got the job.

HH: And so you settle in, and NSA is at best opaque in the American mind. And you had dealt with it on a professional level. But nevertheless, the technology is not what I thought it was going to be when you walked in the door. I have always been under the assumption until I read Playing To The Edge, and I’ve read Legacy Of Ashes and all of them, that they were always at the cutting edge. But it’s clear they were not when you took control.

MH: No, they were not, and now look, for most of its history, I mean, this is the birthplace of American computers. In fact, it’s still the core of American mathematics. There are more math PhD’s at NSA than anywhere else on the planet. But what had happened over time, Hugh, is that things the NSA used to do for itself, because only itself could do it, were now being done in the private sector, and being done at a faster rate. And the big walls that NSA had put up to keep it protected from the outside world and to keep the secrets in were now preventing it from accessing all the wondrous developments that the private sector was creating. And so when I got there, we were falling further and further behind the global telecommunications revolution. And let me give you a short summary, Hugh, of why that matters. If you’re a 2G enterprise, and your target moves to 3G, let me describe your condition as a SIGIN agency. You’re death. You’re out of business.

HH: Yeah.

MH: And so we had to keep pace. And Hugh, you’re worked in government. You know you can’t do that on government budget cycles alone. You’ve got to embrace the private sector, and that then meant I had to push some of the walls down so there was a more permeable membrane between the fort and American industry.

HH: It’s a fascinating look inside that evolution, and I would encourage everyone in the technology world who’s listening as well as in the military world, and any kind of organizational structure, to read Playing To The Edge, because it can atrophy. Things can atrophy. While I’m thinking of it, one of my former bosses turned up in Playing To The Edge, Fred Fielding.

MH: Sure.

HH And so does Greg Craig.

MH: Right.

HH: And I’m wondering if you can compare those two counsels to the presidents?

MH: Well, I mean, Fred Fielding came in late in the Bush administration, and he was truly avuncular. I mean, he was the senior presence, the gravitas, at every meeting he attended. And I tell a story in the book, Hugh, that actually has not been made public before.

HH: Right.

MH: I actually got a package from one of my lawyers that proposed a blanket pardon for everybody involve in the detention and the interrogation program. And I was made uncomfortable by it. As I point in the book, that seemed like an admission of guilt, and we didn’t think we were guilty of anything. But I knew who I had to surface it to. I took it to Fred Fielding, and that was a wonderful barometer for me as to whether or not this was a good or a not good idea. And it turned out it was not a good idea. My instincts were right, and it never went anywhere else. I don’t know that anyone else in the White House was ever even aware of it, but I based my decision on the reinforcement that Fred gave me.

HH: So the wise old man of Washington says that. Along, then, comes Greg Craig and Eric Holder. And if anyone comes in for a verbal beat up here, it’s Eric Holder, who at one point you say has been consistent throughout, messianic in his focus, politically tone deaf, indifferent to contrary evidence and views. That’s hard-hitting General Hayden.

MH: Yeah, but you know, it’s based upon the evidence I had available to me. Now let me talk about Greg just for a minute, because that is not an accurate description of Greg Craig. I had my differences with Greg, but I could always talk to Greg, and you know, and have this exchange of views. With the Attorney General, I actually think messianic is not a bad word, Hugh. I’m sorry to be judgmental, but I’ll give you an example, and I lay out in detail in the book. He decided to reopen the investigation of CIA officers.

HH: Right, shocking.

MH: Investigations that had been already undertaken by career prosecutors, and decisions made not to prosecute, he opened those investigations without even reading the original declinations.

HH: Yup.

MH: That’s what I mean by messianic.

HH: And he kept at it with tremendous damage done to the Agency. I’m curious if you believe now that damage was all done in Year one of the Obama presidency. Has the Agency recovered from that first year of bitterness and finger pointing and recrimination and disclosed memos and harm to operational security?

MH: Yeah, and if you recall in the book, Hugh, I say that President Obama was frankly a bit more ambivalent about this than his Attorney General.

HH: Yes.

MH: Now there may be multiple explanations for that. I don’t try to speculate. But I think President Obama knew that some of the things that were going on were really going to hurt his relationship with the Agency, and maybe the Agency’s willingness to embrace risk. I would like to think that we’ve gotten beyond it, but I fear that we have not. Hugh, let me quickly summarize. When a director goes to a case officer and says hey, big guy, we’ve got something important for you to do, all right? That case officer looks at the director in the eye and asks three or four questions. He says number one, boss, you think this is a good idea? Yeah, I do. Is the President authorizing this? Yes, he is. Does the Attorney General know and has he bought off on it? Yes, he has. Have you told the right members of Congress? Yes, we have. At that point, Hugh, that case officer believes he has got an eternal social contract with the American nation. And what happened because of the early years of the Obama administration, that contract turned out to have the half-life of one off-year election cycle in the American political process. That’s going to leave a scar.

HH: And I point out, it occurred, you write on Page 329, “the CIA had never looked more like OSS than it did right then.” That meant we had lots of people way at the end of the spear all over the world…

MH: That’s right. That’s right.

HH: And then this kind of political witch hunt leaves them all exposed.

MH: It does. Actually, some of the folks, and I have to be a little indirect here, Hugh, some of the folks doing President Obama’s most favorite covert action turned to Director Panetta and simply asked are we going to be pulled through this same knothole in four or five years when the winds change?

HH: Well, of course they would ask that. Of course, they would. Now I hope that the next, that might be a good question for Thursday night, actually, because it does seem to me to be self-destructive in the extreme upon the professionals who are asked to carry out these jobs, which are not easy and very dangerous. But let’s go back to the war, when the war comes on 9/11. First of all, hadn’t thought about NSA on 9/11. I was broadcasting live that day, thought a lot about a lot of different places. But you were very exposed. You had no idea, and NSA really, I mean, they call it Fort Mead, but it’s not really a fort.

MH: No, not at all. In fact, we had a pretty much open campus when the attack took place. We were able to fix that quickly, but we were very much exposed, yes.

HH: And then after the war, you decide you have to start forward deploying NSA along with our operators in not only Afghanistan, but also in Iraq. That’s a major evolution in the NSA culture. If you would explain to people…

MH: Yeah.

HH: In fact, let’s come back after the break with that, because that is such a major evolution in the NSA culture. Don’t go anywhere, America.

— – — – –

HH: General, when we went to break, I was talking about what you put the NSA through in terms of pushing it out onto the battlefield. Would you describe that, because it seems to me that had to have been quite the change at NSA.

MH: Well, it was a new step, maybe doubling down on some things that had begun before I got there, Hugh, but fundamentally, here’s the short version, all right? SIGINT, signals intelligence, used to be viewed as a product. You know, you got your clipboard in the morning, you read the latest. And we realized that in the modern world, and it’s just not the modern battlefield, Hugh, but this applies to our broader economy and culture. Very few things are products anymore. They’re services. And that was our major evolution that Signals Intelligence would be a service, not a product that was routinely delivered. And that required us to go forward to integrate with our client and consumer, anticipate their needs and respond to their needs in real time rather than some formal production cycle.

HH: Now in light of that, clearly, we surprised the jihadists with capabilities that they had no idea we had, and with developments that they had no idea that we could produce. How were they responding in turn? Are we still inside what the OODA loop, the observe, orient, decide, act loop. Are we still inside their OODA loop?

MH: Well, that advantage, Hugh, is always transient. You’re never permanently on top. You’re always responding to change. So you’re right. I think we surprised the enemy, and let me give you the short version. If you radiate on an American battlefield, you’re going to die.

HH: That’s in your book. I love that line.

MH: Right. And after a bit, the smart ones began to realize that. There was an unarguable Darwinian effect taking place there. And so now, the more intelligence enemy is taking great pains to hide their digital exhaust and their electronic footprint. Now again, this is an action reaction and so on. We are going after additional things in order to better identify and locate those who would do us harm. It’s a constant exchange like that.

HH: You also lay out the three-fold mission of NSA – follow the money, follow stuff and follow people.

MH: Right.

HH: Which is the hardest to do?

MH: They’re all equally hard and equally rewarding, and they all equally contribute. And I guess the point I would make to you, Hugh, is that, and this is a problem we have explaining ourselves when somebody comes across some controversial program or another and say well, show me the attack that it stopped. And that’s not how this works. You never get the golden thread. You get the fabric comprised of hundreds if not thousands of threads. And so if you’re following the stuff, following the money, following the people, they mutually reinforce one another. And what you do over time is you uncover the network that you want to take down.

HH: Now you mentioned threads, so let’s talk about thin thread, because I found this instructive. The thin threat imbroglio and the stellar wind win, and what happens when a constituency gets disappointed. It’s a case study. It’s probably a Harvard Business School case study. But would you compress it for folks?

MH: Sure. It was a dispute over how NSA would handle the volume, variety and velocity of modern communications, which I suggested earlier was our challenge. There was a small group of incredibly talented technologists who had believed they had found the solution in thin thread. They were very enthusiastic about it. Hugh, thin thread wasn’t the program of record when I got there. I didn’t make it the program of record, and it didn’t become the program of record after I left. To be fair, I could have been wrong, my predecessor could have been wrong. My successor could have been wrong. But we judged fundamentally that as good as this was, and believe me, we pulled a whole bunch of elements out of it and used it for our final solution for these problems, as good as it was, it couldn’t scale sufficiently to the volume of modern communications. The folks who supported it were true believers, and I mention this in the book, and I tried to be as fair and as gentle as possible, Hugh.

HH: Yup, yup.

MH: I say they turned what was at heart a technological dispute about which honest men could differ into a bit of a morality play that some people were somehow corrupt if they didn’t accept this particular technological solution. I found that offensive. But I also found equally offensive that these folks were the subject of a very blunt instrument, aggressive FBI investigation well after I had left the Agency. And that case, even though it seriously disrupted an awful lot of lives, that case collapsed of its own weight, eventually. So I have my complaints, Hugh, but I would not wish what happened to these folks onto them.

HH: It’s an interesting case study about how to win, lose and not be bitter in losing, otherwise bad stuff happens to good people. And so I would recommend everyone who’s in the government and in contracting to read it for that, and who is in love with their own program. Let’s talk about the Europeans, General Hayden, because there’s an interesting meeting you descried, the five eyes community. By the way, why is Israel not in that community?

MH: This all comes back to a common heritage at Bletchley Park. And it’s the five. It’s not the five plus one. And Hugh, it’s not hub and spoke, like you’ve got the Americans in the center and you’ve got four spokes coming out of it. This is a common community. So for example, after Snowden, there was a lot of speculation would Germany join the five eyes. Well, that’s not a decision we Americans make. It’s five eyes, after all.

HH: Well, and so it’s, what do they do, though? I mean, it’s sort of a little bit of the conspiracy theorists will read five eyes, and there are going to be websites about five eyes now. You know, they’re going to jump to the conclusion that you five are always cooperating, and the Israelis are locked out and the Germans are locked out.

MH: Well, the five eyes come about because you have five English-speaking democracies of roughly common histories, and powerfully common values, Hugh. And oh, yes, and then you have the historical reality that that they all trace back to a common World War II experience.

HH: Yeah.

MH: All right? And the other countries you mention, may be good friends of many of the five eyes, but they don’t fit the description I just gave you.

HH: And so you sit down with them, and they want to talk high morals about the use of force, and you talked High Noon with them. Did that make any sense to them at all?

MH: Look, it was a lovely conversation with them, and it was just with our British friends. The others weren’t involved. We were at a magnificent country estate called Chevening. This is classic, Hugh. We were in the library with leather brown bound books, and we all had brandy snifters and having this conversation among friends. And to be honest, as close as we were, I think the theme that I particular wanted to point out was we are different countries. We view things in different ways. And I mentioned, you know, when you ask an American what are the ten greatest films of all time, I mentioned this in the book. High Noon always comes up.

HH: Sure.

MH: That doesn’t come up on the European lists, because High Noon is a quintessentially American film – the loner abandoned by the town who resorts to righteous violence in order to get his version, or his vision of justice. Hugh, that’s American. That’s not European.

HH: Yeah, righteous violence is not something you’re going to hear a lot about in an EU or a Brussels meeting. When I come back, I’ll continue the conversation about the media and secrets with General Michael Hayden, former director of the National Security Agency and the CIA. American intelligence in the age of terror is the subtitle of Playing To The Edge.

— – – — –

HH: This segment, the penultimate, and for the benefit of the Steelers fans out there, that means second to last, is about the media and the NSA. And I loved, I was so mad at the New York Times when they published that story, and the L.A. Times. I had Doyle McManus on here, and he admitted on the show that they might have cost American lives. They might have let terrorists get away. And at the same time, you explain the New York Time is out there keeping secrets about David Rohde, their kidnapped person. Is the American media just a money deal when it comes to secrets? I don’t think Risen, and is it Lichtblau, are very attractive characters.

MH: Well, you know, we got there here 1st Amendment, Hugh, and I mention in the book it’s got to be respected, even when it may be occasionally misused. On balance, when I talk to the press, they paid attention. I didn’t always get my way, but they viewed me as a serious person whose concerns were legitimate and should be included in their own calculus. Now you bring up, you bring up the classic, Hugh, and that was a story about SWIFT, the ability of the United States to track international banking.

HH: Yup.

MH: And this is a closely monitored program. It was done under a warrant. Everybody in Congress who needed to know knew. And the Times still went with the story, and as I point out in the book, about 18 months later, the Times writes an editorial about you guys got to follow the money. You really got to follow the money. And I, I mean, you’ve read it in the book. I just kind of throw up my hands and said oh, man, I wish I knew.

HH: Yeah, Doyle McManus on this program talking about that story, because the L.A. Times ran it the same story that the New York Times did.

MH: Yeah.

HH: Admitted that terrorists would have clued in for the first time, because some terrorists just aren’t that bright.

MH: Right, right.

HH: And I’m so frustrated by that. And on…

MH: And Hugh, but maybe it was an answer to your question. But one of the authors, Eric Lichtblau, when asked well, why’d you do it, said something along the lines of well, it was just a good story.

HH: Yeah, well, let’s talk a little bit about the blogging community. Andrew Sullivan is tremendously influential, and rightly so. I have a less regard for Glenn Greenwald, though they’ve both been on this program, and I’ve argued with them both. But I have trouble believing that anyone at the NSA takes either Sully or Greenwald seriously.

MH: Well, you know, the people have feelings, and at the depth of the, Greenwald, yeah, at the depth of the Snowden incident, I mean, depending on whether these people lived north or south of Fort Meade, they would get up in the morning, and talking about NSA employees, they would get out in the morning and either grab the Baltimore Sun or the Washington Post, and see what felony they were being accused of committing that day. And that really does, that really is depressing. And you know, and a lot of NSA folks went home for the holidays, and the NSA leadership was so concerned, that they actually kind of sent messages to the workforce to prepare them for the questions they were going to get asked over Thanksgiving dinner from crazy uncle Bill or crazy aunt Ellen about NSA activities.

HH: Well, in the aftermath of, in the aftermath of San Bernardino and of Paris, and of the lone wolf which is the known wolf, actually. We now know that there are 900 cases in the United States, thousands of cases in Great Britain, and who knows how many in Europe, do you think the public has changed and understands the necessity now of active, very aggressive intelligence gathering?

MH: You know, Hugh, that’s a movable feast inside American political culture, but I think you’ve nailed it for the time being. People are concerned about their safety and are far more willing to kind of cast an understanding eye to what it was, what it is, agencies like NSA and CIA are doing on their behalf. But rest assured, rest assured, Hugh, when everyone now feels safe again, which is a measure of the success of these security agencies, at least American political elites will now begin to complain not that they weren’t doing enough, but they were doing too much.

HH: Now what about the toll on the people who have worked there for these 17 years, and by that, I mean, some people were there before you got there, and they’re still there after you left, and still there five years after you left. And you write at one point about the emotional toll of trackers and linguists who follow targets and then see them rubbed out.

MH: Yeah.

HH: And that it’s a hard job. Have we factored that in, yet? Have people begun to think about how you have to train up your workforce to endure a long, long, long war?

MH: I did, Hugh. And that was one of the reasons for writing the book, to actually show our countrymen the toll these people willingly embraced to do their job to keep the country safe. And so both at NSA and CIA, I’ve got a chapter right in the middle of the book, Hugh, you might recall. I think it’s called Espionage, Bureaucracy and Family Life. And the key to that chapter is my trying to explain how we as agencies needed to better take care of our people and especially of our people’s families, that we weren’t habituated to doing that the way the American armed forces were. Hugh, let me just give you one example. By fiat, as director, I told the CIA leadership everybody can count three hours of physical training a week as work time.

HH: Oh, good idea.

MH: Get people out there and make them exercise.

HH: Great idea.

MH: Yeah, it’s a great idea.

HH: Stand by, General, we’ve got to go to break. I’ll be right back. One more segment with General Michael Hayden, author of Playing To The Edge.

—- – – — –

HH: I hope you have found this as fascinating as I found the book. When we went to break, we were talking about taking care of the intelligence community, and the three hours of physical training that you’d write about in the middle of it, excellent advice for any, actually, agency. Tim Cook, which we began the show talking about it, said immobility is the new cancer. So I’m glad on that. But I want to finish with the largest of all, Page 333. “Targeted killing has become a core part of the American way of war. And to do that requires the kind of exquisite intelligence detailed here. It also requires very difficult operational and political decisions.” So can a democracy keep this up, Michael Hayden?

MH: That’s a great question, Hugh, and more importantly, can this democracy keep it up? This democracy, who demands more transparency and more public accountability of every aspect of national life as we go day by day, and so far, we have. But I make the point in the book, Hugh, and this is actually a pretty important point, so I’ll repeat it here now, that my old community, in order to create the kind of consensus you just suggested we’re going to have to have, my old community is just going to have to be a bit more open about stuff. Now I get it. That’s going to shave points off of effectiveness. I know it is. But at the end of the day, we’re not going to be able to do the kinds of things we need to do to keep America safe unless Americans are more confident in our actions, more comfortable with what we’re doing, and we can’t buy that, Hugh, with anything other than more openness. And that’s just the way it’s going to be.

HH: Now I had a, Bill Bennett and I had a conversation with former President Bush in the Oval Office, off the record, so I won’t tell you what he said. But we pressed for the disclosure of the number of dead terrorists, because it’s hard to know who’s winning in a game where there is no scorecard. And are you saying in what you just hinted at that more operational successes ought to be disclosed?

MH: The word I use in the book, Hugh, is maybe we can’t be transparent, but at least we can be translucent. And just think of the difference between those two words. Translucent, the brighter public can see the broad movement, the broad shapes of things going behind. They don’t need to know the details to feel good or safe about it, but they do need to more see the broad movements. And so I’m calling for a more translucent American intelligence community, not operational details going out public.

HH: And so do you believe, let’s close by talking about ISIS and Iran. You have a chapter on Iran, which I would encourage everyone to read, because I never got the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran. You gave me the most detail of anywhere that I’ve read. I’m still mad about it, because I think it was wrong.

MH: I get it. I get it.

HH: But you guys put everything you could into it. Have we made a serious mistake, in your view, vis-à-vis the Iranians? Have we let off the pressure?

MH: Let’s put the nuclear deal aside, because that’s a separate question, and honest men can differ, and I admit that’s a tough call. What we have done, frankly, Hugh, what we have not done after the nuclear deal is to push back on all the Iranian activities we’ve seen post-nuclear agreement. Henry Kissinger has a great phrase. He says Iran has to make up its mind whether it’s a country or a cause. We negotiated the nuclear deal with what we thought was Iran the country. Since the nuclear deal, Iran has acted like Iran the cause, and it’s been almost cost-free. We need to push back and push back hard against them.

HH: I want everyone, if they don’t do anything else, go to the bookstore and read Page 291. “The counterintelligence service of Iran are numerous, large and thorough. The ministry of intelligence and security was the FBI’s counterintelligence equivalents and a whole lot more.” You talk about the Supreme Leader’s ruthlessness, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and you talk about Soleimani, the Quds Force and its dark, ruthless commander. These are very able enemies.

MH: Oh, no. They’re good. They are very good at what they do. President Bush rarely raised his voice at me. But he did once. He said look, Mike, I understand it’s tough to get into North Korea, but for God’s sake, there are tens of thousands of people going back and forth to Tehran every month. Why is this such a tough target? And I had to admit, they’ve got good, very good services.

HH: Do you think the Russians have returned to their level of professionalism in regards to intelligence gathering that they had when the Soviet Union collapsed?

MH: You know, the Russians are good. You know, we talked about cyber stuff before, Hugh, and I’d kind of dimed out the Chinese? The Chinese have scale. The Russians have skill. The Russians are actually better at this than the Chinese.

HH: Wow. And so they kept that? The KGB didn’t go away. They change its initials, and they kept their skill set?

MH: Yup.

HH: So who else is in this, I always say the Russians, the Chinese and the Iranians. Who else ought we to be worried about?

MH: Well, the North Koreans, certainly. You know, I’ve got this kind of group I call ambitious, fragile and nuclear. And in that group, I would tuck in the North Koreans, I would include the Iranians, I would include the Pakistanis.

HH: I was going to say, yeah.

MH: …but in a different circumstance. And I would include the Russians.

HH: So fine, you didn’t include ISIS.

MH: No.

HH: So you do not believe that they have this capability?

MH: Capability in terms of nuclear weapons?

HH: No, of gathering intelligence on us?

MH: Oh, not on a technical nature. They’re probably good, but they’re good on their own home court, and only on their own home court, Hugh, that kind of human, up close and personal stuff. And of course, when they then make themselves a presence in Western Europe, they seem to be pretty good at preparing the battlefield for their attacks.

HH: Last question for you, General Hayden. The Congress comes in and off stage in Playing To The Edge. Some members of Congress get praise, some of them not so much praise. Generally speaking, do the people on the Intelligence Committees put in the time they need to put in to be participants in a full way as one would expect a legislator with that job?

MH: Actually, let me be a bit hopeful about that. You know, nobody gets a bridge built back at home for being on the Intel Committees, Hugh, so this is a labor of love. They do put an awful lot of time in there in it. But this is really opaque stuff. This is really hard to master. And then, structurally, we put term limits on them. So as they begin to kind of master the trade, they move on. There are things we can do to actually make Congressional oversight better.

HH: How about the staffs that attend to the members? Are they trustworthy, reliable and getting better at this stuff?

MH: They are large staffs, and just like any large staff, Hugh, they’re uneven. But I’ve got to tell you, both as a matter of just being practical and as a matter of law, I am better served as director of CIA being open to Congressional overseers. I win nothing by hiding the ball on them.

HH: Well, General Michael Hayden, congratulations on Playing To The Edge. I wonder how hard you found this. How hard was it to write a book?

MH: I enjoyed writing the book.

HH: Okay, well, I enjoyed reading it, and I would hope that every single member of the military, the intelligence community and the commentariat, especially reporters, take a look at this, because you’ve done a good job in bringing out a side of the world that they just don’t even know exist, much less understand. General Mike Hayden, I appreciate the time, God speed.

End of interview.


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