25 February 2016

Book Review: Mike Hayden’s New Book Blames US Intel Community for Iraqi WMD Failure, Not White House

Mark Bowden
February 23, 2016

Review: In ‘Playing to the Edge,’ Michael V. Hayden Discusses Bush-Era Intelligence

According to Michael V. Hayden, President George W. Bush personally intervened in 2005 to try to stop The New York Times from publishing an explosive scoop.

In one of his book’s most memorable moments, the paper’s Washington bureau chief, Philip Taubman; the executive editor, Bill Keller; and the publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., met with Mr. Bush in the Oval Office to hear his objections to The Times’s running a story about Stellarwind, a top-secret National Security Agency surveillance program. For several years, the program had been sweeping up telecommunications data for the National Security Agency without obtaining a warrant.

Mr. Sulzberger, the fourth-generational head of this publication and a man with a notoriously awkward sense of humor, joked to Mr. Bush that they both now worked in their father’s old office. “No ice was broken,” Mr. Hayden writes. The president argued that exposing Stellarwind, which was meant to intercept the communications of suspected foreign plotters, would invite another 9/11-style attack. If that happened, Mr. Bush told the Timesmen, they ought to be prepared to shoulder some of the blame.

Michael V. Hayden during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in 2006. Credit Pool photo by Doug Mills

The story ran. No attack came. The sky did not fall. And herein lies my primary objection to this book. During the Bush years, Mr. Hayden ran the N.S.A., served briefly as deputy director of National Intelligence, and then directed the C.I.A., but his assessment of the more controversial programs he administered seems to ignore what happened after he left office in 2009. These programs are what Mr. Hayden is referring to in the title of his book; the “edge” is the limit of the law. He acknowledges pushing that edge, but argues that this was his responsibility and charge.

We actually have a bit more perspective now, and it turns out that (at least so far) pulling some of these programs back from the edge has not resulted in more terror attacks in the United States on the scale of Sept. 11. On the other hand, the excesses of those years have done profound and lasting damage.

Mr. Hayden seems oblivious to this. He has written an occasionally engaging book about matters — moral, legal and technological — that are very complex, but he shows little interest in examining them. Throughout he is breezy and unapologetic. And why not? At the same time his efforts were being met by public criticism, they led to steady praise and promotion. He ended his Air Force career a four-star general.

Branded as an arch-villain of the Bush era, Mr. Hayden is determined here to show he was not just a successful military officer, but a good man, honest, loyal, religious, a loving husband, someone who believes firmly in the rule of law and constitutional limits, and a regular guy. A lifelong Pittsburgh Steelers fan, he regularly attended pro football games. He tells the story of fans scattering from his armored S.U.V. in a crowded parking lot after a Baltimore Ravens game when security agents used a loudspeaker to warn people, “Slowly move away from the van!”.

Mr. Hayden is also out to settle a few scores. He seems to have more ill will for pesky journalists than for the terrorists in his cross hairs, although his efforts are likely to have the opposite effect intended. Those whom Mr. Hayden brands as openly opportunistic or “agenda-driven,” like Tim Weiner, Jane Mayer, Glenn Greenwald, James Risen and others, will hardly find their journalistic stature diminished by his disdain, while poor Mr. Taubman, whom Mr. Hayden describes as “responsible” and “balanced,” may never live it down.

If the Bush administration overstepped privacy laws and basic decency, it did so only after careful in-house legal consideration and congressional oversight — even though some who approved these collection methods (he’s talking about you, Senator Dianne Feinstein, among others) preferred to pretend later that they were shocked. White House legal memos and congressional briefings will hardly calm the most angry critics, but, in fairness, Mr. Hayden and other security officials felt a tremendous responsibility to protect the nation after Sept. 11.

But we survey the same ground today better informed. Al Qaeda, as it was 20 years ago, no longer exists, thanks in part to Mr. Hayden’s efforts. Osama bin Laden is dead. We still face isolated, random acts of mass murder, but of a kind committed more by the lone killer than by organized terrorists.

Here and there Mr. Hayden does a good job of making his case. He is particularly strong on N.S.A. data collection; much of the fear does seem rooted in misunderstanding. The word “warrantless,” for instance. Collecting telecom data without a court warrant does not mean such collection is entirely “unwarranted,” as in, unjustifiable. There are practical difficulties created by new technology. And data, he makes clear, was not being swept up indiscriminately; the vast majority of it concerned foreign terrorist targets.Photo
Mr. Hayden Credit David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

And I, for one, cannot get too worked up over the collection of metadata, which documents only electronic links, not content. This would seem an enormously useful way to know whom foreign terrorists are talking to in the United States without sacrificing any significant measure of privacy. These opportunities and hazards result from rapid changes in the digital world — old satellite transmissions, for instance, were easily targeted and collected at their foreign source, while Internet calls, emails and texts are routed through cables that know no national boundaries.

Spectacular revelations about surveillance practices, like those leaked by Chelsea Manning and Edward J. Snowden, spurred fears of a creeping Orwellian state, even though the vast stores of material outed seemed mostly to show ordinary government officials working hard, and even intelligently, at their jobs. Mr. Hayden argues convincingly that he and others in the Bush administration were not bent on world domination, and had no interest in listening to your phone calls, unless you were chatting regularly with a known terrorist overseas.

But what he doesn’t do in this book is take stock of how other measures stand up in retrospect. A good example is torture. Mr. Hayden took over the C.I.A. after authorization of coercive interrogation tactics were withdrawn, but he remains a defender. He believes waterboarding, sleep deprivation and other methods produced bits and pieces of information that justified their ugliness. He sees coercion simply as a useful intelligence-gathering tool, and I tend to agree, which doesn’t mean it should be American policy. Clearly more is lost than gained.

The consequences of such practices (predicted beforehand by many, including me) was widespread and lasting. Attempting to legalize certain restricted methods of coercion opened the door to sadists, and quickly led to widespread torture and abuse in prisons in Afghanistan and Iraq. This is not just a moral concern. The photos taken at Abu Ghraib, for instance, were arguably the single worst setback to the American military effort there. The fallout was bad enough for President Bush himself to abandon his support. It’s a classic slippery slope, and continues to play out.

Mr. Hayden reserves polite but withering scorn for President Obama over many things, for hypocrisy (adopting many of the practices he criticized while campaigning); for the Iran deal (though he concedes that the president did not have “a lot of better choices”); but mostly for the decision to release the Bush administration “torture memos,” the legal justifications for authorizing coercive interrogation. Mr. Hayden sees this as a shocking betrayal of the loyal officers inside the C.I.A. who carried out orders. For the head of an agency that regularly kills people with drones, he engages here in awkward hyperbole, quoting one veteran C.I.A. officer as saying the release of those memos “hit the agency like a car bomb in the driveway,” and later refers to the consequences as a “bloodletting.”

Again, the sky has not fallen. To my knowledge, no C.I.A. employee has ever been prosecuted or even reprimanded.

Yet Mr. Hayden feels Mr. Obama had not fully thought the thing through. He says he told the former Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, “any future president who would want to resurrect the techniques had better practice up because he would have to administer them himself.”

In other words, no agency officer in the future would dare.

Which seems to me precisely what Mr. Obama had in mind.

Mark Bowden is the author of “Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War” and the writer in residence at the University of Delaware.

Playing to the Edge

American Intelligence in the Age of Terror

By Michael V. Hayden

448 pages. Penguin Press. $30.

No comments: