When Gen. Michael Hayden surprised me by calling me at 7 a.m. New York time and introduced himself, for a moment I felt like a man of consequence. This is not what one would expect from a respected and decorated general. A man who in the last decade was considered America’s “master spy.” Many hostile countries and terrorist organizations would like to take a peek, even for a moment, into the secrets hidden in his head.
But Hayden is unassuming, and during the call I discovered that he is a very nice man. After commanding Air Force Intelligence (AIA) during the 1990s, he was promoted in 1999 to be head of the NSA, and after seven more years he was appointed head of the CIA.
In this role, he was in President George W. Bush’s office daily, and became his eyes and ears on intelligence. There are few in the United States with this kind of intelligence experience.
After becoming head of the CIA in 2006, he made drastic changes—the most noticeable being targeted killings of terrorists by unmanned drones. This later caused resentment in the United States, as drones began exploding suspicious cars in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“Part of that has been the inevitable claims—exaggerated, but not wholly inaccurate—of collateral damage,” Hayden said.
Even if Hayden expresses a little regret, he does not intend to ask for forgiveness. During his tenure, the CIA turned from being an agency for collecting intelligence outside the United States into something more reminiscent of its World War II predecessor—the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), an intelligence agency whose activities included raids on Nazi targets, assassinations, kidnappings, and sabotage.
He does not apologize, but he stops to reflect on the things done during his tenure. Especially what he calls the “obsession on the war on terror”—a policy he himself led and shaped during the past decade, after 9/11.
It was a policy that, according to Hayden, distracts the American intelligence agencies and makes them miss an important target that is threatening in the long term, or in other words—the big elephant in the room—to which we shall come later.
Epoch Times: During your tenure as head of NSA, you supplied the Bush administration with circumstantial evidence on the presence of WMDs in Iraq—evidence that turned out to be wrong—and reinforced the decision to go to war. Do you regret this?
Michael Hayden: “Of course. And we were wrong. And that was my responsibility, not the administration’s responsibility; and I go on further to say—it wasn’t just that we were wrong, but we gave the administration a sense of confidence, that even we didn’t have in the information that we had.”
Epoch Times: A man in your position surely sometimes feels that he has “divine power” to rule global affairs and shape the world.
Mr. Hayden: “It does feel like that sometimes. That’s why an intelligence officer needs to be humble. When he comes to a meeting with the president, what an intelligence officer is able to do is to create the left- and the right-hand boundaries of logical policy discussion.
“To be fair, in intelligence, sometimes circumstantial evidence is all you have. If you can get something to a degree of absolute certainty, it’s probably not an intelligence question any more. People confuse intelligence with making a case in the court system. In the court system, information is designed to prove something beyond all doubt. While the purpose of intelligence is to enable action even in the face of continuing doubt.
“Regardless, besides intelligence there are many other legitimate inputs in the conversation: the policy of the president, the politics of the time, the values of your country, financial limitations, etc., that go into making a final decision.”
Before taking charge of the CIA, Hayden revolutionized another intelligence agency—the NSA, which is responsible for intercepting and processing calls and transmissions from all around the world.
The 9/11 attacks prompted Hayden, with Bush’s support, to initiate in the NSA unprecedented massive listening and data collection programs. These programs have made the NSA controversial once Edward Snowden exposed how it has become a sort of “big brother” that is capable of seeing and hearing almost everything.
Hayden does not appear bothered by this. On the contrary, in his new book “Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror” (2016), he chooses to decisively respond to what he calls a “deep misunderstanding” of what has actually been happening. As far as he’s concerned, the media got to “watch the movie” on NSA’s cyber activities at a very late stage, toward the end, which has led to a basic misunderstanding.
Hayden’s book does not describe activities of the Jack Bauer or Jason Bourne style. Rather, it attempts, in a calm manner, with no drama, to show the public what American intelligence agencies are actually doing.
“We had a theoretical ability to access a large percentage of incoming and outgoing calls to the U.S.,” he said, but emphasized that in practice the NSA listened in on incoming and outgoing calls only when it was clear that either side of the call was related to al-Qaeda.
Over dozens of pages, Hayden not only tries to shed light on the NSA’s data collection activities and deal with the ignorance he claims exists on the topic, but also goes on the offensive.
He claims that Snowden, by his acts, assisted countries that wish to destroy the Internet. Countries that fear the free exchange of ideas and free trade, and want to enforce their totalitarian regime on the Internet—like China.
He claims that Snowden gave them ammunition by making the claim that though the Americans also say that they want a free Internet, it is actually to hide their true intentions—to spy on everyone.
Epoch Times: What is the difference between China’s espionage and what the United States has been doing?
Mr. Hayden: “We do conduct espionage, but we only do it to make our citizens free and safe. We do not use the tools of state espionage for American commercial advantage. And that is all the great difference in the world.
“So for example, when last year the Chinese stole 24 million records from our Office of Personnel Management, I did not complain. That’s legitimate state espionage. If I could do that against the Chinese, I would do that. Our mistake was that we couldn’t protect our own information.”
Epoch Times: But when they hack into computers of commercial companies in the United States to give the information obtained to Chinese companies, this is for you a different story.
Mr. Hayden: “You asked me what is the difference—that’s the difference.”
Hayden is referring, among other things, to comments by FBI head James Comey in an interview on “60 Minutes.” Comey said that there are two kinds of companies in the United States: those that have been hacked by the Chinese, and those that don’t know they have been hacked by the Chinese.
According to data from the Commission on the Theft of American Intellectual Property, Chinese theft is costing American companies around $300 billion per year, and 1.2 million jobs.
I try to dig deeper into the topic, and ask Hayden about concerns that Chinese telecom companies like Huawei—a smartphone and network equipment maker—are spying on us. Hayden confirms that Huawei does espionage for the Chinese regime, but doesn’t want to get into specifics.
“I won’t go into details regarding companies like Huawei, ZTE, Lenovo, and others, also because there are differences among them,” he said. “But I’ll tell you this, the Chinese industrial effort against the United States is, to my mind, absolutely breathtaking. I have never seen anything of such a scale and persistence coming at this country.”
When I press for more information, Hayden said: “Look, when Huawei is creating the infrastructure in a certain country, it makes it easier for China to spy on that country, even if there aren’t secret deals or secret handshakes, or espionage relationships between Huawei and the Ministry of State Security [a Chinese regime agency similar to the CIA]. That’s as far as I will go on the subject.”
Epoch Times: In Israel there are serious concerns that the Chinese are intending to steal the technology of Israeli companies in every major deal that’s being signed, even if they come in as legitimate partners in a company. What should Israeli companies do?
Mr. Hayden: “I am opposed to the Chinese stealing technology. I am in favor of the Chinese creating their own technology. In between those two, you have Chinese companies acquiring technology in the normal course of their business. If that’s good or bad depends on the specific circumstances of the technology in question.
“So, I am not saying that the Chinese are an enemy of the U.S. or Israel, and that we should have no relationship. Rather, that the Chinese have made it state policy to steal industrial information.”
Hayden writes in his book about a trip he made to China (while head of NSA) to meet his opposing number, the chief of the Third Department of the Chinese general staff in the People’s Liberation Army. But instead of providing details on the meeting, or what was happening behind the scenes, he chose to emphasize a completely different facet of it.
“In one instance, a balky Chinese driver would not get out of the way of our small convoy as we were speeding toward a meeting. When we finally passed him, I could see in the mirror that police in one of the trail vehicles had stopped, pulled him over, and were starting to beat him as they dragged him from the car.
“During a later tour of the Forbidden City, a phalanx of large, dark-suited escorts shoved Chinese tourists out of the way to clear a path for us. We feigned fatigue and asked to leave as quickly as possible.
“It caused me to wonder how the Chinese thought we would react to all that. Did they know so little about us that they thought we wouldn’t mind? Or maybe they did know us, and didn’t care. Or maybe they were trying to send another message. If they were, I didn’t get it.”
Epoch Times: In recent years, the Epoch Times has exposed serious human rights violations happening in China, like organ harvesting from innocent prisoners of conscience. Do these things fit into the equation for the intelligence agencies?
Mr. Hayden: “Yes. We report on the totality of what is China. We have our intelligence requirements that are prioritized by our government, and we try to aggressively collect against those intelligence requirements. The human rights situation in China is part of that.”
The Big Elephant in the Room
These days, after years of fighting terror, the former top U.S. spy sees the activities of the U.S. government and its intelligence agencies in a wider perspective. Unlike others in positions of power, he is less bothered by the rise of ISIS or the migrant wave currently sweeping Europe.
He of course follows events carefully, and sees great importance in handling them well, but he is also asking himself the following question: Has this obsession with the war on terror, which he led during the past decade, made the American intelligence agencies miss the “big elephant in the room”?
“We have become extremely focused on current threats and in dealing with them,” Hayden said. “Much of what we call ‘intelligence analysis’ currently done in American intelligence is focused on specific targets: trying to make sure no one boards a plane with a bomb, for example. There is a natural tendency to focus on the urgent, the immediate, and I do think it comes at the expense of the more long-term, strategic elements.”
Epoch Times: What are the dangerous elements? What is the “big elephant in the room”?
Mr. Hayden: “China, without a doubt. Here I am not talking just on threats; I am talking about understanding China and building a relationship with it, based on what China is [already] doing and what it wants to do.
“Frankly, I think we have lost focus on Russia, and we had better catch up and better understand Putin, and the dynamics of Russia today. It appears as if we were so much surprised when Russia pulled back from Syria, and I think we did not correctly estimate what Russia did in Crimea (in the south of Ukraine.)
“I think there is general agreement in the American intelligence community that this is true. The challenge has become how do you change those things, given that current threats remain so dominant.”
When Hayden talks about Russia, he puts it alongside unstable and threatening countries like Iran and North Korea. But when he gets to talk about China, he goes a step further and uses serious language: If we don’t deal with the China issue properly, he said, it would have “catastrophic outcomes for the world.”
Epoch Times: What do you mean by “catastrophic outcomes for the world”?
Mr. Hayden: “This is about the long-term view of the dynamics between us and the Chinese. The dynamics between an existing power, the U.S., and a rising power, China. This has happened before in history. Sometimes the emergence of a new power has been handled well and peacefully: Great Britain, for example, handling the emergence of the United States 100 years ago.
“Other times, more often than not, it has not been handled well and has led to significant conflict—like Great Britain and imperial Germany in 1914. It is simply saying this is a very important thing, and it is very difficult to handle.”
Epoch Times: What do you foresee if we don’t handle the Chinese issue properly?
Mr. Hayden: “Occasionally there will be confrontations, I am sure. There will be incidents, and my great fear is that something might happen that would turn into a big conflict—or at a minimum, a hardening of positions and creating of divisions like we had with the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War.”
Epoch Times: What made you begin to reflect on the intelligence policy that you have led through all those years?
Mr. Hayden: “It started while I was still in office. I began to notice a problem, that the more time goes by, the more our focus on the war on terror has created deficits in other places. Since I have left, the deficit has only grown. I told this to David Petraeus (CIA head between 2011 and 2012) before he took the oath of office as head of the CIA. I told him: ‘David, you are going to work very hard every day to remind yourself that we have a much wider responsibility [than just the war on terror].'”
This article was originally published by Epoch Times Israel. It has been translated from Hebrew and edited for length and style.