General Michael Hayden has overseen America's shadow wars from atop the highest echelons of the American security apparatus. The retired United States Air Force four-star general and former director of both the National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency spoke to a crowd this week at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas to discuss his career, the presidential election, the idea of pardoning Edward Snowden and his relationship with the makers of the television show Homeland. George W. Bush and his wife Laura quietly attended. The appearance is part of a tour to promote Hayden's book, Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror. No other media showed up; excerpts of his comments are below.
On Harold Martin, a contractor working with the NSA who was arrested for removing classified information
The whole story today is about a contractor who had some information that he should not have had at his home. I'm giving you a fact-free answer; I know none of the details. By instinct, there may be a little less here than meets the eye. Whenever a bombshell bursts with regards to the American intelligence community, a lot of folks write in the most extreme language, the most colorful language and takes it to the end of the possible storyline. My advice: Be patient. Let the rest of the story evolve, see what's going on here. The New York Times, one of the sources that broke the story, they point out that he has not been charged with espionage and there may not be an ideological, son-of-Edward Snowden component here. So we'll see where that goes.
On morality and government intelligence work
The president and I have discussed this in private moments. When an altar boy assumes the responsibilities of the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, he doesn't change his identity. He doesn't reduce his personal moral responsibility. But added on to that personal responsibility is a responsibility that he's taking on behalf of the American republic that no one else is asked to do. CIA operates in a space that no one else is asked to do or allowed to do. So when you accept the responsibility of being director you're taking on this additional task, but it doesn't negate your personal moral responsibility ... I kind of found the fit to be comfortable. I didn't have to betray who I was or who I grew up to be in order to be the director of the CIA.
On judgement calls
The phone would ring in the middle of the night and I'd know what it would be about. And literally before I would pick up the phone I'd say, "Remember Hayden, whatever you decide, you're going to live with for the rest of your life." But that was not an invitation to be conservative. That was an invitation to think it through. Because you realize, if you're too conservative on too many decisions and something terrible happens, you have to live with that the rest of your life, too.
On pardoning Edward Snowden
I really don't think he's coming home. Oliver Stone just did a movie and there's a groundswell to pardon him. This is the single greatest hemorrhaging of legitimate American secrets in the history of the republic. And people argue that he created a national conversation; I'm not going to argue that. I could, but I'm not. All I'm going to do is call your attention to the other 98 percent of the stuff he put out the door which has nothing to do with your privacy and everything to do with how your nation conducts legitimate foreign intelligence.
These people [professional intelligence operatives] keep the secrets. And Edward Snowden betrayed that tribe, who are fanatical about keeping legitimate secrets. Any American president in the future who would offer leniency or a pardon of Edward Snowden runs the significant risk of alienating this community on which that president's future will continue to rely.
On government surveillance programs
Right after 9/11 — I mean this is the afternoon of 9/11 — I started adjusting the dials at NSA, fully within my authorities. I won't take you through the fine print of all this but it has to do with the minimization of U.S. reporting and identities, fully within my authorities. I gave my workforce instructions: For communications entering or leaving the United States from Afghanistan err on the side of revealing information rather than protecting U.S. privacy. Remember the day, remember the circumstances, remember where the enemy headquarters was. I dutifully informed the Congress, told the House intelligence committee and the Senate intelligence committee, and I told DCI George Tenet, who was the DCI at the time head of all American intelligence.
As George tells the story, he goes into the morning meeting with the president and vice president and he begins the presentation of all the things he's doing to get American back into this game. And he says, "Oh yeah, one more thing. Mike Hayden's going to jail." And the way he tells the story, the vice president says, "Tell him not to worry. We'll bail him out."
And then George explains what it was I was doing. The president asks if there is anything more he could be doing. So George [Tenet] comes back to Langley, calls me up and asks if there is anything more I can be doing. And I candidly say, "No, not within my current authorities." And there's a pause on the phone and he says, "That's not exactly the question I asked you."
"I said, I'll get back to you." Now, everyone agreed we'd not been good enough in detecting the one kind of terrorist communication that should have been our highest priority, communications one end of which was in the United States. So I met with my legal and operational team. I said alright, blank slate. What could we do that would give us a higher probability of detecting those communications. ...
A few days later I was in front of the president. And he determined, based on the advice of his attorney general, that he had the legal authority as commander in chief to change the legal structure within which I was working.
On the intelligence collection program aimed at U.S. phone records
The most controversial aspect of the program, which shows up in the Snowden revelations, is the 215 program. ... Do not think we were putting alligator clips on your phone line. This is going to the companies and getting records they kept for their own purposes — so they can charge you — and we put it into a database. I'm not making light of this; this was trillions of phone records. But we never touched it until [there was a specific reason]. So we roll on a safe house in Yemen, let's say. And one of our allies grabbed somebody and they have 'pocket litter,' our description for stuff that identifies him as a very bad man. And he has a cell phone. What this program allowed us to do was to go to that ocean of American phone events and say, hey, anybody in here talk to this number we just found in Yemen? And if one showed he talked to that number, we got to say, "Well who did you talk to?" And that's it. I'm done explaining this program because that's all it did.
President Obama ran on a ticket saying he was going to change all this stuff. But once he was briefed on this, he kept this program. Under President Bush we actually put it under some legal authority beyond his commander in chief authority. We got Congress to buy in and President Obama endorsed it. ... It continued up until last year, when Congress explicitly said we shouldn't do it. The companies still keep [the data] and we still ask for it. The big change after all the huffing and puffing about Snowden was that the NSA gets to ask the companies. It's a little clumsier.
On enhanced interrogation
The historical records within the agency are clear. These techniques led to a flow of information that was otherwise not available. These are very controversial and I get it. You can still be a loyal and thoughtful American and be very troubled by this. We were playing to the edge and I get that. Any good American can say I don't want you doing that; I don't think that's what America should do, and besides it didn't work. The first half of that, God bless you. We share common values, and that's an honest conversation we should have. But the back half, that it didn't work, that's a matter of historical record. It worked.
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On Iranian nuclear weapons deal
I was the CIA director for president Obama for three weeks, and this was the first meeting with the new president. We're two minutes into the meeting and President Obama turned to me and asked, "General Hayden, how much enriched uranium do the Iranians have at Natanz [nuclear research facility.] And my response was, "Mr. President, I know the answer to that one and I'll give it to you in a minute. But can I give you a different way of thinking about this problem? There's not an electron or neutron at Natanz that will ever show up in an Iranian nuclear weapon. What they're building at Natanz is knowledge and confidence. They will go to the highly enriched uranium somewhere else." ... As I say in the book about the nuclear agreement [realized by Obama], I don't think we would have bought it. But it's not like we had a whole lot of better ideas, either. The problem with the nuclear agreement is that, although it takes the enriched uranium away from Iran — which is a good thing — it allows them them to continue to build knowledge and confidence. I try not to be too critical about this; if it were easy we would have fixed it. If the Iranians abide by the agreement and don't cheat, in 10 years Iran will be a legitimate, not sanctioned, industrial strength, nuclear state never more than three weeks away from enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon. This is the problem from hell. It's not meant to criticize one administration or another. This is really, really hard.
On Trump and Clinton
I'm just anti-Trump. It's a tough choice. I freely admit, in the narrow lane where I have expertise, there's no question the former Secretary of State will be better at this than the Republican candidate. In my own personal voting, there's a whole bunch of stuff to the right and to the left of my lane which causes me to not endorse Secretary Clinton. If Mr. Trump governs in any way consistent with the language he has used as a candidate, we all have a lot to worry about.
On the series Homeland
One of the great things about my post-government life is that I get to come to events. So my wife Jeanine and I are invited to downtown Washington D.C. for the premier of Homeland, the first episode of the second season of Homeland. We go to the Corcoran Gallery of Art right across from the old executive office building and watch the first episode. And I actually enjoy watching Homeland. And there's a party afterwards with the producer, director and the cast there. So I walk up to Mandy Patinkin and say, "Hi, I'm Mike Hayden. I also used to play the role of director of the CIA." And he puts his arm around me and says, "Really? Let's talk."
And I've shared some of my insights with the writers. I actually know what's going to happen this season. But I'm not saying.