The Things We Need to Know

The national security state steps out of bounds.


Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror, by Michael V. Hayden, Penguin Press, 464 pages, $30

Penguin Press

Though he's been out of government for more than seven years, it feels like Michael Hayden never left. He directed the National Security Agency (NSA) for a six-year stretch, helming it during President George W. Bush's post-9/11 warrantless wiretapping program and spearheading its efforts to expand offensive uses of hacking and cyberwarfare. He ran the CIA for the three twilight years of the Bush administration, vocally and assuredly defending its past uses of torture as both effective and moral, and accelerating its use of drones to kill suspected terrorists in Pakistan. We are still arguing about all of these things today, and Hayden is still arguing about them with us. He is one of the most consequential actors of the National Security Era, and he has spent the bulk of his time since falling out of de jure power loudly and unflinchingly trying to tell us the things we need to know about the things we probably shouldn't.

That is his brand, of course. Hayden is a man who has seen things. He knows what is necessary to protect us, and he's not afraid to do it—indeed, he has done it. He communicates this brand not just with his words but also with his style, which is "candid" and "unapologetic" (in his telling), supremely confident, both folksy and military-clipped, practical, a bit squeaky. He is the closest thing we have to a real-life Colonel Nathan Jessup (Jack Nicholson's character in A Few Good Men)—and he'd be the first to remind you that he's got Jessup outranked.

Playing to the Edge is Hayden's grand statement, the case for himself as a mover and shaker, a humble but aggressive visionary, a team player, an honorable man, and, most of all, right about everything. If we disagree with him, it's only because we don't know what he knows—and this is a problem. He's concerned, he says, that "critics, observers, and just average citizens don't know as much about intelligence as they want or should." (Intelligence, in this context, means just about everything the NSA and CIA do.) If the public misunderstands what intelligence does, we might not want intelligence to keep doing it. He wants to show us that we should.

But it is not a good sign when your memoir's central metaphor breaks down in the foreword. Hayden's conceit is that those who run intelligence have a duty to "us[e] all the tools and all the authorities available, much like how a good athlete takes advantage of the entire playing field right up to the sideline markers and endlines"—the edge. As he's said elsewhere (he's been on this kick for nearly a decade), "Playing back from the line protected me but didn't protect America. I made it clear I would always play in fair territory, but that there would be chalk dust on my cleats."

The first problem is that if you get chalk on your cleats, it means you're out of bounds. (Or at least you are in football, Hayden's obvious inspiration.) That this has apparently gone unremarked to Hayden over the years—even by Dan Rooney, the owner of Hayden's hometown Pittsburgh Steelers and Hayden's high school football coach, with whom he watches too many Super Bowls in this book to count—is notable in itself. That it goes entirely unexamined in the book's numerous invocations of the image is, alas, characteristic.

Worse still is that "taking advantage of the entire playing field" is a pretty odd way to describe the main thing that good athletes do. Of course, spraying one down the right-field line or throwing it deep and wide can sometimes help the team. But they are hardly required to win the game. Hayden never bothers to explain why pushing it to the edge is a main point of his duty as a public servant. Like so much in the book, it is simply assumed that people of good faith will agree.

The metaphor misleads in a deeper way, too: Can the hard, chalked edge of a playing field really be compared to the soft, porous shore of the law? Hayden doesn't engage that point, nor another critical one: Can games played in public, where all know the rules, usefully illuminate a life's work wrought of secrecy? For Hayden, lines eliminate discretion. But as his own history makes clear, discretion in intelligence is the whole ballgame.

This is not just quibbling; we can still take Hayden on his own terms. He concedes that the public defines where the lines are when it comes to intelligence. His argument is not quite that a healthy intelligence community thrives on political support and popular legitimacy. It is that the intelligence community requires support and legitimacy to accomplish its ends. Disguising it as an argument that he will work hard against the edge for us, whatever the lines we set, Hayden works hard on us, to convince us to keep them wide.

He begins that effort with an anecdote. On January 24, 2000, the NSA's entire computer network goes dark, cutting off the government's access to its immense system of sigint, or "signals intelligence." Hayden is in his tenth month heading the agency. For almost three days, techs work on the problem. Hayden makes phone calls. Hayden reminds his employees about the importance of keeping the outage secret. Hayden goes cross-country skiing with his wife on the golf course at Fort Meade. The techs fix the problem. The press gets wind, and Hayden works to spin the story. The lesson? "Caution isn't always a virtue. Not if you're serious about doing your duty." The point is not exactly obvious.

Hayden draws this message from his own slowness, in his early days as director, to address the agency's "antiquated technology and its laden bureaucracy." He took over the NSA of the mind that he should "do no harm" to what he saw as a great institution. But after the network incident, Hayden decides, he needs to "get off the X of inaction" (intelligence-community lingo for the point of maximum vulnerability), to be a disrupter (he is constantly telling the reader how he is being "intentionally disruptive," making "disruptive choices," "shak[ing]" things up). He embarks on transforming an agency that, when he started, lacked computers that could send an all-staff email, into a modern, resourced, capable, voracious spying machine. He hires a "bureaucratic knife-fighter" as his deputy. He dismisses "good people" who "didn't deserve" their fates to make way for fresh blood. He writes 400 of those all-staff emails. By most accounts, he accomplishes a lot.

But a story about forward-thinking technological preparedness and aggressive bureaucratic restructuring is more than an odd fit as a guide to navigating the kinds of moral, ethical, and legal boundaries that Hayden so desperately wants to push. Ensuring that the systems work is a different task than deciding what they should do. That Hayden took "to be as aggressive as possible" as his foundational insight from the I.T. episode explains a great deal about how he ended up doing what he did.

And when Hayden says it is his duty to "use every inch we're given," it is worth asking him to be specific.

After 9/11, Hayden and a small group of White House officials, intelligence officers, and lawyers secretly put in place a warrantless wiretapping program whose purported legality relied on radical exceptions to both the Fourth Amendment and a federal statute that strictly governs foreign-intelligence surveillance on domestic soil. Even as he defends the program, codenamed "Stellarwind," as a "logical response" to 9/11 and "not the product of demented cryptologic minds," Hayden calls it "the agency's edgiest undertaking in its history." (He may be right, but he devotes just five lines to describing the program's most legitimate competitor for that title: the vast domestic spying, detailed in the 1975 and '76 Church Committee Reports, that he calls a "scandal" in scare quotes. He mentions government surveillance of "the likes of" Jane Fonda, Joan Baez, and Benjamin Spock; he leaves out a host of legislators and civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr.) Situating the controversy Stellarwind ignited, Hayden writes my favorite sentence in the book: "Domestic intelligence has always been countercultural in America."

The story of Stellarwind has been told in detail in many places, including Inspector General reports and, most recently, Charlie Savage's Power Wars. Hayden's version adds little to what we already knew. Directly after the attacks, Dick Cheney, through the humanoid bad-deed medium that is George Tenet, then director of central intelligence, asks Hayden whether there was more the NSA could be doing to counter the newly urgent terrorist threat. Hayden replies, "Not within my current authority." But that's not what Tenet asked—wink, wink—and, weeks later, Stellarwind is a go.

Hayden doesn't dwell on the specific legal arguments surrounding Stellarwind—"It's all still contentious and the subject of much debate," he writes, in the understatement of the book. Hayden's not a lawyer, he reminds us over and over, even if, from the looks of it, he spends a lot of time with them. In Edge, officials crack jokes about receiving subpoenas, and lawyers are frequently overheard handicapping the Supreme Court cases that might eventually hold them accountable, should what they're doing become public—an outcome Hayden and company do their damnedest to prevent. Stellarwind would survive, 6–3, says Robert Deitz, NSA's top lawyer at the time. John Yoo, sitting in a briefing with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court's chief judge, Royce Lamberth, calls it at 7–2.

Let's just say that the legal theory was kind of out there. Savage writes that the goal of Deitz and David Addington (Cheney's lawyer and consigliere) was to find "a legal interpretation that could justify" the program that "was not off the wall, even if it was not the most persuasive theory." Not the highest bar for government officials conspiring to evade the Constitution, but to be fair, persuasion and victory are not always so tightly correlated in the Supreme Court. As for Hayden, he tells us several times that "the Fourth Amendment is not an international treaty"—as in, foreigners don't have privacy rights the United States has to respect—but he never quotes the text of the Fourth Amendment. What does Hayden think the "right of the people to be secure…against unreasonable searches" actually means? Having read Edge, I'm not certain he's ever really thought about it.

While on one level unsurprising, Hayden's failure to seriously engage whether what he was doing was lawful exposes his entire self-conception as a delusion, if not a manipulation. He presents himself as the no-bullshit man, doing what needs doing though the heavens fall, but he is constantly trying to avoid responsibility. The beauty, for Hayden, of repeatedly invoking the "edge" is that it frees him from taking any blame when things go wrong. As Hayden tells it, offering views on the merits of policies is "not in [his] job description." He is not a "policy maker." He is just doing his job ("within US law I was duty bound to be as aggressive as possible") to implement the legally plausible and the operationally effective. Isn't that what we hired him for?

Hayden repeatedly appeals to the idea that the public sets the boundaries for how intelligence works and what intelligence does. In post-9/11 hearings, Hayden pleaded with legislators: "What I really need you to do is to talk to your constituents and find out where the American people want the line between security and liberty to be." By the last chapter, Hayden is going Snowden, saying intelligence "actions need to have political and policy legs, and they have to be created by informed debate" (his emphasis). He seems genuinely concerned with the way overclassification impoverishes policy, and he is frustrated that, because of the intelligence community's draconian pre-publication review rules, his ongoing contributions to public debate must pass through a censor. He says he'd love to talk more about drones and he'd love to show us the threat assessments. (Surely he would. He admits that, during his tenures, he repeatedly declassified information to convince journalists not to publish stuff whose secrecy he prized.)

But over time, his nods toward the public add up to head fakes. In "some ways," he muses, "the public has already decided what it does and does not want to know." In this attitude, Hayden is no different than the other Bush administration actors who created their own reality. It becomes clear that all the fuss about the public is largely motivated by Hayden's apparent obsession with the "troubling American habit, confined largely to political elites, of complaining that intelligence agencies have not done enough when they feel in danger and then complaining that they have done too much when they are feeling safe again." Bluster aside, Hayden lives in constant fear of being left on the hook.

Hayden's biggest regret from the Stellarwind saga is that those in charge did not make "more people pregnant" with knowledge of its existence "so that when [it] became public, no one could doubt who was already with child." (You have to marvel.) They kept the circle small, "to keep the secrets." But after news of the program leaked to The New York Times, Hayden decided he and the rest of Stellarwind's principals had made a political misfire (but, of course, not a constitutional or ethical one), setting themselves up to take almost all of the post-leak heat. Hayden surmises that briefing a larger group would have "effectively dar[ed]" anyone "to take action to stop" the program, "turning [the legislators'] natural political caution to [the administration's] advantage." That's not pushing the edge; it's rigging the game.

No chapters in Edge are more typical of this slipperiness than those concerning the CIA's use of torture against detainees in secret "black sites" around the world. As Hayden points out on almost every other page in these accounts, the vast majority of the agency's horrifying record of detainee abuse took place before he took over at Langley. (In a telling construction, he writes: "In the world as it was seen from Langley, folks there believed they had done the right things morally, legally, and operationally.") But as the new CIA chief, he felt "duty bound to defend good people who had acted in good faith," who did these things "out of a sense of duty, not enthusiasm."

Does that mean he would have approved the worst forms of torture the agency employed, like waterboarding? He just really can't say, because, thankfully for him, "others did." ("Folks who have been spared that decision should keep that in mind before they jump to criticize.") But here, again against brand, Hayden's playing it safe. Of course he would have ordered the code reds.

And he does get around to defending them. He says there was no doubt that the CIA's torture program "had provided unique, actionable intelligence," caveating like crazy, adding that "it built up a storehouse of granular information that would be used to build threads to ultimately kill and capture terrorists and disrupt plots." (The Senate's comprehensive torture report, by contrast, concludes that "the use of the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of obtaining accurate information or gaining detainee cooperation.")

Pages later, Hayden writes that "the techniques were not used to elicit information, but rather to move a detainee from defiance to cooperation by imposing on him a state of helplessness" that would lead to friendly "debriefings or conversations." (The report: Abu Zubayda was "completely unresponsive with bubbles rising through his open full mouth.") He defends the CIA agents responsible for the rendition and torture of Khalid el-Masri, calling it a simple case of "mistaken identity" and refusing to apologize. (The report: CIA officers "quickly concluded" that el-Masri was not a terrorist and still did not release him for five months.)

None of this is new ground for Hayden, who has his own very special place in the Senate report: a 37-page table comparing the lies he told Congress about the CIA program with the more, let's say, reality-based evidence that contradicts it.

Yet it is on drones that Hayden's persona and his arguments appear to most harmoniously align. Hayden presided over the first CIA drone strikes of the Obama presidency, an almost too on-the-nose symbolic bridge between two presidents' maddeningly similar national-security regimes. According to Daniel Klaidman's Kill or Capture, one of those strikes, in Pakistan, days after Obama's inauguration, killed a tribal elder who led a peace committee, along with four of his family members, including two children. In Edge, Hayden acknowledges killing civilians. He "always tried to get better" at "avoid[ing] such things"; he added more cameras. But he still thinks drones are "the most precise application of firepower in the history of armed conflict." And he criticizes President Obama for, in a May 2013 speech, acknowledging that he anguished over drone strikes: "What seemed obvious…was that the president was uncomfortable with his own actions." With Hayden, there is no worse sin.

Between drones and surveillance, Hayden's legacy has cast a tall shadow over the Obama administration. But the legacy has far more to do with moving the lines than with staying within them. The thing about chalk, for men like Hayden, is that you can always wipe it away.