Fight of Our Lives

An Interview with Gen. Michael V. Hayden

Any savvy observer knows the world is a dangerous place. But it takes a former director of the CIA and the NSA to grasp the full breadth and depth of that danger. Gen. Michael Hayden held both those positions, commanded the Air Intelligence Agency, and ran the Joint Command and Control Warfare Center. He has unparalleled insight into the major threats facing the U.S., its allies, and everyone else. In the interview below, he lays out his map of risks and identifies the primary driver of uncertainty in contemporary geopolitics.

Flickr. The Predator drone -- barely visible high in the sky here -- has become a symbol of the U.S. national security fight in all its complexity.

Flickr. The Predator drone -- deadly and hard to detect -- has become a symbol of the U.S. national security policy.

Octavian Report: There seems to be a disconnect from reality in the way the mainstream press views what the NSA does. Do you have a view as to why that is and how that might affect the agency’s ability to do its job?

General Michael Hayden: It’s a dilemma. The last quarter of my book, Playing to the Edge, tries to explain why I wrote the book through that lens you just described. What you have is an activity — noble, lawful, necessary — but best done in secret inside of a broader political culture that distrusts secrecy. I’m part of that culture, too. How do you square that circle? I once asked Carly Fiorina to study an issue for me: will America be able to conduct espionage inside a broader society that every day demands more transparency and more public accountability from every aspect of national life? Her team studied it for a while and came back and said, “It’s hard to tell.” Which is a very powerful answer.

We are going to have this continuing discussion: how much of what it is we do do we have to make public in order to have the sanction, the validation of the American people? The short answer is we’re going to have to make more public than we’ve made in the past. Don’t kid yourself — that will shave points off of operational effectiveness. But it’s going to be a necessary condition if we’re going to get to do this at all. Not a problem to be solved, but a condition to be managed.

OR: Is that driven primarily by the rise of the internet, or do you think the public has become generally less sympathetic to the intelligence community?

Hayden: It’s, again, a change in political culture. It is the byproduct of a general distrust of government. It’s the byproduct of a demand for far more participatory democracy than representative democracy. These are broad macro trends, and intelligence is just part of that. Take the Snowden revelations on the 215 program — that’s the metadata program. The NSA felt the program was okay. It was authorized by two presidents, Congress was aware of it, Congress had legislated it, the oversight committees were onboard and frankly very supportive, and the court was overseeing it. That’s the Madisonian trifecta: executive, legislative, judicial. But a lot of Americans concluded that that no longer constituted consent of the governed. The line I use is: maybe that’s the consent of the governors, not the governed. You may have told them but you didn’t tell me. You have this macro trend to which espionage is now going to have to accommodate.

OR: Do you think that our intelligence capabilities are in better shape now than they were before 9/11?

Hayden: Yes. I’ll just give you one metric. When I was at CIA in 2006, I had two dollars for every one dollar George Tenet had in 2001. The American people have been incredibly generous with their resources for their intelligence community. We also had the pick of the litter when it comes to who we hire. The last year I was director, we had 160,000 applicants to choose from at CIA and thus an awful lot of talent and resource there. The challenge is to use all this well, wisely, aggressively. Courageously might be a good word; sometimes you’re required to say things that are very unwelcome to your political and policy masters.

OR: And we’ve seen concerns about terrorism abate dramatically.

Hayden: With regard to American espionage and intelligence, American political elites still feel free to criticize that community for not doing enough when they feel endangered — then immediately turn on a dime and criticize that very same community for doing too much once they have made them feel safe again. You do have that broad dynamic. It’s probably the result of original sin. Human life is always going to be imperfect.

Some good news, though. There is more continuity between President Bush and President Obama than there are differences when it comes to the war on terror. I am fond of saying (and I actually said in the book) that there was a bigger change between the first and second Bush administrations than there was between Bush and Obama. In the book I quoted a German complaining after the Snowden revelations, “We thought it was just George Bush. We thought there were two Americas. Now, we know there is just one America.” Frankly, that made me feel very good, that there is truly continuity between politically very different presidents. Despite all of our yelling at one another and whining back and forth, we’re actually a pretty tough enemy. We have taken this fight to this enemy in ways I don’t think the enemy expected.

OR: Where do you see the biggest risks coming now to our security?

Hayden: Here’s how I game it out. Imagine a graph with an X-axis and Y-axis. In the lower-left hand corner, I put terrorism and cyber threats and so on which are incredibly immediate but for the most part aren’t existential. President Obama correctly points that out. They could happen tonight because a TSA agent makes a bad decision. Four, five, six years out along the horizontal axis, I place another group of threats: states that are fragile, ambitious, and nuclear. There you’ll find Pakistan, North Korea, the Iranians. I even throw the Russians in there. That’s not going to happen overnight, but that’s a big deal. An error in that threat lane would be pretty catastrophic.

Then at about 10 years or so come threats we have time to prepare for but are really important in terms of potential danger. China, for example: I’m not categorizing China as an enemy or even a threat. I’m just saying the accommodation of an emerging power by the status quo power — that’s the Americans accommodating the Chinese — is one of the most difficult undertakings any state could be faced with. More often than not, it ends up in global war. That’s probably the pass-fail reality out there, but it’s not going to go bump tonight either. We have some time to work on it.

OR: Do you see the regime there having a major crisis in the interim?

Hayden: People with my background spend at least as much time worrying about Chinese failures as we do about Chinese success, Chinese weakness as opposed to Chinese strength. There are serious structural problems within the People’s Republic. The Chinese had this implicit social contract. The government will be autocratic, but don’t worry about it: we’re going to make you rich. The government has been, by and large, able to deliver on that contract for the last two decades via the miraculous entry of about 400 million people into the middle class — something that’s genuinely breathtaking.

I think most people now believe that line of continuous economic growth is at least slowing and maybe nosing over. Now, what does the party use to legitimize its power? It’s not ideology. They’ve thrown Marx, Engels, Lenin, and even Mao off the raft a long time ago. It’s been that economic contract. If they can’t deliver on the economic contract, my fear is the last refuge of a challenged government is nationalism. Therefore we might get a China more aggressive in its international affairs if for no other reason than it needs to pump up its ratings back home. That’s what worries me.

OR: Does the U.S. still enjoy the military advantage that characterized its position in the postwar world? Does it need to increase its focus and spending on defense?

Hayden: Winning close is exciting in the NFL. Winning close is not what you want to do in combat. America’s quantitative and qualitative edges have eroded over the last decade-plus. A lot of this has to do with the war in which we are currently engaged, which is consuming an awful lot of national resources. What has happened because of the high pace of the current ops tempo is that we haven’t recapitalized, we haven’t modernized an awful lot of our forces. I’m an airman — 39 years — and I’m here to report to you that America’s Air Force in its history has never been smaller or older than the Air Force we have right now. We do have this powerful need to, as I said, recapitalize and modernize our forces. This is hard to do because it doesn’t look as if the tempo of current operations is going to be reduced very dramatically very soon.

We’ve actually developed what I would call bad habits. Bad habits, I mean, if you have to go to war against a really competent opposing force. For example, we have operated in an absolutely benign air environment since October of 2001 — no one challenges us in the air. By the same token, our commanders now demand an omniscient God’s-eye view of the battlespace. If they don’t have it, they think somebody has failed them. Neither of those conditions are going to pertain if we have to go into combat with another power that’s got substantial capabilities. Not only do we have to recapitalize our force and modernize our force, we have got to return to some basic skills that we’ve probably let atrophy because we had to emphasize other skills to fight this current war.

OR: Why has the U.S. so far not been able to militarily defeat ISIS, Al-Qaeda and its offshoots, and other actors and stabilize the MENA region?

Hayden: The way you phrased your question is quite exquisite. We can defeat ISIS, we just can’t stabilize the region. I say in the book and I’ve said in some other public forums recently that if we could kill our way out of this problem, it would have been over 14 years ago. I was part of and contributed to the most magnificent killing machine in the history of armed conflict — but killing isn’t sufficient. It’s necessary to keep us safe now but it doesn’t get us to that stability that you suggested.

My last week or two in government, I was still there with President Obama on the margins of the NSC. I recount this in some detail in my book. I reported an operational success and Rahm Emanuel, as I was leaving, grabbed me and said, “Good on you guys. That was a great operation.” I paused and, frankly, stepped out of character a little bit and spoke very directly to the new chief of staff and said, “Thank you very much. That’s very kind. But you understand, don’t you, that unless you guys change some facts on the ground, people like me get to kill people forever.” That’s the dilemma we now have. We can kill fine. It’s changing the realities on the ground that appears to be beyond our reach.

OR: Do you feel that U.S. credibility has been damaged on foreign policy questions in recent years?

Hayden: That’s kind of a political question, but the answer is yes. I have a lot of foreign friends and the common theme among them is: where are you guys? They look to the United States and really don’t see us as involved as we formerly were or as they expected or hoped we would be. Now, that’s a choice and the President is making that choice. I understand that choice. I think it’s wrong — but I can see a president deciding to do what you and I just described.

I asked David Sanger, who wrote a very good book about the first Obama administration’s security policy, “David, give me one sentence to describe what the President is trying to do.” He said, “The President is trying to better align the definition of American interest with the realities of American power.” Okay, not bad. I get that. But I don’t think he’s doing it well and I think we are withdrawing from regions of the world that, frankly, won’t go away and won’t leave us alone. This is not husbanding our forces or an economy-of-force operation — this is paying now or paying later. And I think there’s a pretty solid rule out there: if you pay later, you have to pay more.

OR: Do you see a possibility that there’s a major uprising in Saudi Arabia? Do you see a possibility that the regime in Iran is overthrown?

Hayden: You really do have tectonic shifting, don’t you? Now, to recount where we are, Iraq is gone. It no longer exists and it’s not coming back. It’s the same with Syria, probably the same with Lebanon, certainly the same with Libya. Tectonic is the right word here. So far, the Arab monarchies seem to have fared reasonably well. The Emirates, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan — all have their troubles but they’re certainly not Syria or Libya. It remains to be seen, though, what happens to them over the long term. I do think that they need to modernize a great deal about what it is they have and what it is they are, how they govern, and how their economies create. The answer is: I don’t know about the future of those countries, but one has a legitimate right to be concerned.

Henry Kissinger has a great summary for the Iranians. They have to decide whether they’re a country or a cause. We negotiated with them on the nuclear deal as though they were a country. Since then, they’ve been acting like a cause. We’ll see how long they can sustain that tension.

OR: What is your view of the Iran deal? Do you think they will be a nuclear power unless there is regime change?

Hayden: Well, if the deal works and there is no cheating and everyone behaves consistently with both its letter and spirit, in 10 years or so Iran will be an industrial-strength nuclear nation never more than a few weeks away from enough fissile material for a bomb. I have a good Israeli friend who says, “Under this deal, what do the Iranians need in order to achieve all their objectives?” He answers his own question: patience. I say in the book that I don’t think we should have bought this package. But it’s not like we had a lot of better ideas either. This is a very, very difficult problem. Frankly, this is not one we wrapped up in a bow nicely to hand off to the incoming Obama administration. We left them a pretty ugly baby.

OR: You mentioned Pakistan. Are you concerned that nuclear weapons in weak states could fall into the hands of terrorists? Or is that something beyond their capability to use?

Hayden: Part of the nuclear danger is not that weaker states would lose control of their nuclear materials. The more people who crank out material, the higher probability you have of the material falling into the wrong hands. When we gamed out how terrorists might use weapons of mass destruction, in terms of the likelihood of use, it was: chemical, biological, then nuclear dispersion, then nuclear detonation. I think that’s still a pretty good taxonomy as to what are the shades of darkness that we might have to face.

OR: Why has that not happened?

Hayden: We’ve worked very hard to maintain control of nuclear weapons and it’s helped others maintain control of theirs. There’s a very good record of the U.S. cooperating with the Russians under Nunn-Lugar to make sure they maintain control of their fissile material. We have offered a lot of help to the Pakistanis to maintain control of their fissile material. I mean, this didn’t happen by accident. There’s a lot of energy behind the scenes, making sure even as the world gets more fissile material that we keep it under as tight a control system as possible.

OR: What’s your view of Putin and his end game?

Hayden: Russia’s not China, obviously. It’s a declining power. It is not a resurgent power, it is a revanchist power. Putin is doing all this stuff and he doesn’t have more than a pair of sevens in his hand. That actually makes him more rather than less dangerous. He knows he doesn’t have any picture cards. The elements of Russian power are eroding underneath him. That makes him, I think, more willing to embrace risk in the short term because he knows the long term isn’t his friend. I would have been more active pushing back against Russian adventurism if not in Crimea, which may be a special case, then certainly in the eastern Ukraine. The question you asked earlier about the American absence in the world — that absence left a gaping spot on stage for the Russians to step into in Syria. Their interests in Syria are not our interests in Syria. I think it made things even more difficult.

OR: What are our interests in Syria and what do you think we should be doing there?

Hayden: There’s obviously a humanitarian interest there. We’ve got somewhere between a quarter and a half a million dead people and half of the population has been displaced either externally or internally. There is a no-fooling moral dimension there. Second, we have allowed a terrorist state the size of Indiana to develop, not in the middle of nowhere like Afghanistan but in the middle of the Middle East. That represents a clear and present danger not only to America’s friends but to America. Finally, because of the instability in the eastern Mediterranean, we’re actually seeing Europe getting destabilized. I would argue against anyone who said, “We don’t need to worry about what’s going on in Syria.” But I don’t think anyone would agree that we don’t have to worry about what’s going on in Europe, given our current and historical ties to the continent. There’s a lot in play here.

OR: Is Europe destroying itself via a refusal to recognize its national-security issues?

Hayden: I don’t know if I would use the phrase “destroying itself.” But there has been a parting of the ways between ourselves and a lot of Europe with regard to the use of force in international affairs, the legitimacy of force, the legitimacy of espionage, and a whole variety of related issues. You have some fraction of the European population wringing their hands over American espionage. David Ignatius had a wonderful summation of this in the Washington Post in March in which he said, “Post-Brussels, the Europeans are lining up at the American intelligence Leviathan begging for any intelligence product we might be able to give them.” These are the same Europeans who spent the last two years complaining about American intelligence collection. I mean, logically and ethically, you can’t have it both ways.

Let me give you an extended metaphor. It’s a metaphor about soccer — how appropriate for talking about Europe. Post-Brussels, everyone is fretting mightily that we let a goal in and their remediation is: we need a bigger, stronger, faster goalie. My point is if you play this whole game on the goal line, it doesn’t matter how good your goalie is — that ball is still going to go in the back of the net. If you’re focused solely on defense — how do I break up the current cells, how do I find the network, how do I detect explosives at the airport — you’re going to lose.

To extend the metaphor, what I say is you need to go up and control the midfield. If you control the midfield, you’re just going to have a lot fewer shots on goal. So how do you control the midfield here, so to speak? The answer is long-term, careful, fairly comprehensive intelligence collection of the kind that some people in Europe seem to be so upset about. But that’s precisely the kind of collection that gives you options other than trying, as it were, to stop penalty kicks. If you really extend the metaphor, in addition to controlling the midfield, how about we kick the ball into the attacking zone? How about we take a few shots on goal? In other words, take the fight to the enemy. Make war on ISIS, make these guys spend more time defending their own goals than threatening ours, and make them spend more time worrying about their survival than thinking up ways to threaten ours. That’s what we need to be doing. But the midfield and the attacking zone are not familiar turf for many in Europe.

OR: Do you think that the criticisms leveled by some against President Obama for his seeming detachment after Brussels are valid? Do you think U.S. is not showing enough leadership in identifying the enemy?

Hayden: If the President is not reacting or not overreacting to even a very successful terrorist attack like the one in Brussels, I don’t think that means he’s being insensitive and I don’t think it’s a mistake from his public affairs team. I think that’s the message the President wanted to send. I disagree with this, but it is not an illegitimate policy. It is not an illegitimate position on the part of the President to say, “This is simply not as important as all you people are making it out to be. Yes, I understand it was a tragedy — but it was not a catastrophe. There are a lot of other things in the world that are really important and I am not going to get consumed by this one.” Again, I disagree with that. But I understand that that is a logically arrived-at policy position. I think that’s exactly what happened when the president went to the baseball game in Cuba.

The other issue you raised is the implicit assumption that this has nothing to do with Islam. This does have something to do with Islam and we should be at pains not to confuse ourselves by pretending that it doesn’t. Now, it’s not about all of Islam and, for God’s sake, it’s not about all Muslims. But this does have something to do with the fact that one of the world’s great monotheisms is undergoing a true crisis of its identity. We help no-one by pretending that’s not happening.

OR: Do you think that, over the life of your graph, an existential threat to Israel will surface — particularly from Iran?

Hayden: It depends upon the course of Iran — and not just the nuclear course. I mean here the character of the Islamic Republic and whether or not they decide to end up being a country rather than a cause, like I said earlier. I have a lot of good friends in Israel, and we have very candid discussions. I would characterize the Israeli security establishment as being tactically brilliant. About its level of strategy — grand strategy, deep strategy — I’m not so sure. I refer to a wonderful Israeli movie called The Gatekeepers in which half a dozen heads of the Shin Bet are interviewed and talk about all the things they did to keep Israel safe and then universally express regret that the political leadership did not take advantage of the time and space they provided to arrive at more stable political solutions.

OR: Do you see a real likelihood that Putin will make some sort of aggressive move to test NATO, such as a Baltic incursion?

Hayden: I sure as heck wouldn’t dismiss it. It depends on a lot of factors. Again, I don’t know that it’s likely but given his behavior over the past several years, it’s something we should be concerned about. We should be acting in a way that makes it less likely by the firmness and the clarity of our commitment to defend the Baltic states as members of NATO.

OR: Do you think he, at this point, thinks that the U.S. would go to war over the Baltics?

Hayden: That is precisely the issue: does he or doesn’t he? That is within our ability to influence and I think we have to go about influencing it.

OR: How serious is the threat of cyber warfare? How likely do you consider a massive attack on U.S. infrastructure or other systems to be?

Hayden: I don’t dwell on the possible catastrophic attacks. When I map out the most dangerous and combine it with the most likely, I don’t end up with that. I don’t rule that out, but I don’t spend all my time fretting about it. If I draw two lines — one is how bad could it be and the other one is how likely it might have happen — the place where those lines intersect is what I call the isolated, sanctioned, nothing-to-lose, let’s-roll-the-dice renegade states like North Korea. It could even be Iran. In some circumstances, I might even get dark and creative enough to imagine Russia in there. But if the Chinese, for example, are turning out all the lights on the eastern seaboard, it’s probably not the first thing the President is getting briefed on. It’s a subset of a much broader thing.

OR: Why does the U.S. tolerate seemingly constant hacking?

Hayden: Because it’s hard to prevent. It’s a domain, as I tried to emphasize in the book, in which all advantage goes to the offense. Defense is an afterthought and very difficult and much more expensive than offense. Until you begin to change some of those things around, until there are global norms with regard to cyberspace, I suspect this gets worse before it gets better.

OR: Foreign policy experts often cite Pakistan as perhaps the biggest and most frightening unknown — in terms of touching off catastrophic conflicts — on the world stage. What should the U.S. be doing to mitigate that threat?

Hayden: Pakistan is a state under great stress and, unfortunately, it’s a nuclear-armed state under great stress. Successive U.S. administrations have tried to deal with it — but judged by the horrific attacks in Lahore on Easter, they have not done so too successfully. It’s a hard problem.

Husain Haqqani used to be the Pakistani ambassador to the United States. He wrote a book — he was a journalist before he became a diplomat — called Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military. The only two powerfully functioning structures there are Islam and the armed forces. The history of Pakistan is the two of them either cooperating or fighting for control. The civil polity on which what you and I would view to be a stable democracy has to depend hasn’t yet been constructed. What you need to build within Pakistan are the elements, the building blocks, of modern democracy: a free press, strong non-government institutions, an educated population, freedom for women. Things that over the long term moderate the sharp turns in Pakistani policy.

OR:  What potentially deadly threats are people not talking about?

Hayden: If you’re looking at the single most important influence on whether the world will be stable or not stable, we need to look into the mirror. If you asked that question to the rest of the world, the answer you would get from the rest of the world is: what do the Americans believe their appropriate role in international affairs is? Because it’s sure been hard to tell over the past 15 years. We have been erratic and unpredictable and we’re still the only superpower on the planet. I think the greatest threat to global security is an American foreign and diplomatic security policy that is unstable and erratic and unpredictable.