Michael Hayden: Blame Intel Agencies, Not White House, For Getting Iraq Wrong

Feb 22, 2016
Originally published on February 23, 2016 3:36 pm

The former head of the National Security Agency, Gen. Michael Hayden, says U.S. intelligence agencies got it wrong when they concluded Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and they should take the blame for that, rather than the White House.

"It was our intelligence estimates" that were incorrect, Hayden says in an interview with NPR's Robert Siegel. "We were wrong. It was a clean swing and a miss. It was our fault."

Hayden, a retired Air Force general, ran the the National Security Agency in the run-up to the Iraq War in 2003. He later served as deputy director of National Intelligence and then as director of the CIA.

His 10-year tenure in these top intelligence positions was no ordinary decade. In addition to the Iraq War, there were the Sept. 11 attacks, the expansion of NSA data collection and the investigations into claims of torture by CIA interrogators.

Hayden writes about this period in a new memoir, Playing to the Edge.


Interview Highlights

You dispute the commonly held belief that Vice President Dick Cheney and other administration officials sold the idea Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. It wasn't the White House, you write.

No, not at all — it was us. It was our intelligence estimate. I raised my right hand when [CIA Director George Tenet] asked who supports the key judgments of this national intelligence estimate.

I actually spoke to Leon Panetta much later. He was coming to take my job at CIA and I said, "Leon, I've looked at a lot of the things you've written while you've been out of government. You said that we buckled under pressure with regard to the Iraqi [national intelligence estimate], the weapons of mass destruction." And I said, "Leon, that was us. We were wrong. It was a clean swing and a miss. It was our fault."

After Sept. 11, President Bush authorized the NSA to intercept and collect communications, what we now call metadata. Does government have business storing these records?

What we had was a mass of American phone calls. Phone bills, actually, records of calls. These are put — for want of a better word — into a lock box and they are not accessed until we have a reasonable, articulable suspicion that we've got a dirty phone number, one associated with terrorism.

All we did then was simply — and I'm kind of speaking in cartoon form here — we get to yell through the transom and say, "Hey! Any of you numbers in here ever talked to this to now-known-to-be-dirty-number in Yemen?" And if a number in the Bronx got up, timidly raises its hand, so to speak, and says, "Well, yeah, I talked to him every Thursday," we then get to say, "Well, who the hell do you talk to?" And Robert, that's the limit of that program. That's all it did. ...

And it was accessible by about two dozen people at NSA whose access to the database had keystroke monitoring on it. Now, look, any power in the government can be abused. But what you've just described is an equally powerful argument against arming policemen. That can be abused too, Robert. We actually need to give the government some power.

If NSA contractor Edward Snowden had access to so much data, doesn't his own behavior perversely prove the risks of storing so much information?

It's a powerful argument. That's exactly right. That the mere possession — not the abuse — because no one has shown any evidence of abuse of the metadata program. And when there has been abuse of other aspects of NSA activity, they have been identified, self-reported and punished within the agency.

Snowden had no access to metadata. Snowden had no access to operational traffic. Snowden had no access to the actual intercepts that NSA was collecting. Snowden was on the administrative side of the program. That's why so many of the things journalists have put out using the data he stole have been inaccurate — because they are a misreading of briefings and slides that existed on the administrative side of NSA and not the operational side.

What did you tell Leon Panetta, your successor as CIA director, to say about waterboarding?

I simply said: "Do not use the word 'torture' and 'CIA' in the same sentence ever again. You can object to some of the enhanced interrogation techniques. You can, in your heart of hearts, believe they meet some legal definition of torture. But Leon, you're taking over a workforce that did these things in good faith. They did these things with the assurance of the attorney general that they indeed were not torture. Do not accuse them of felonies."

Look, I get it. Honest men differ. A lot of good people describe these things as torture. The definitive legal judgment under which the agency was operating and you know sooner or later, Robert, someone has gotta call balls and strikes and that's the way it is.

Should one take a very legalistic view of torture rather than say what you did was wrong?

That's a totally honorable position. I get that. What I don't get is someone who says, "By the way, it didn't work anyway."

I would say we got information from the people against whom we used enhanced interrogation techniques. We moved them from a zone that was pretty much represented by defiance to a zone where they were more compliant, more willing to talk about the things we believed we needed to know to keep the country safe.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

During the last decade of his career, Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden scaled the heights of U.S. intelligence. Between 1999 and 2009, Hayden ran the National Security Agency, he was deputy director of National Intelligence, and then director of the CIA. And it was no ordinary decade. There was 9/11, the expansion of NSA data collection, the war in Iraq and the investigations into claims of torture by CIA interrogators. Gen. Hayden reflects on his career in a new memoir called "Playing To The Edge." Welcome to the program.

MICHAEL HAYDEN: Thank you very much, Robert.

SIEGEL: Let's start with the war in Iraq.

HAYDEN: Sure.

SIEGEL: You dispute the commonly-held belief that Vice President Cheney and some administration neocon successfully sold the idea that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. It wasn't the White House, you write.

HAYDEN: No, not at all. It was us. It was our intelligence estimate. I raised my right hand when George asked who supports the key judgments of this national intelligence estimate.

SIEGEL: George being George Tenet...

HAYDEN: ...George Tenet. That's right...

SIEGEL: ...The director of Central Intelligence.

HAYDEN: Right. And so I actually spoke to Leon Panetta much later...

SIEGEL: ...Your successor as CIA director...

HAYDEN: ...When he was coming to take my job at CIA. And I said Leon, I've looked at a lot of the things you've written while you've been out of government. You said that we buckled under pressure with regard to the Iraq NIE, the weapons of mass destruction. And I said Leon, that was us. We were wrong. It was a clean swing and a miss. It was our fault.

SIEGEL: A few weeks after 9/11, you were director of the National Security Agency and President Bush authorized operation Stellar Wind. It involved intercepting and some communications, especially what we've all now learned to call metadata - phone numbers, what number we're calling, what other numbers at what time for how long. And lots of arguments ever since over whether this was an overreach of constitutional authority. And I wonder, do you see any merit to the argument that when Mr. X phones Ms. Y, whose existence is unknown to Mrs. X, that the government has no business storing the records of those conversations?

HAYDEN: What we had was a mass of American phone calls. Phone bills, actually, records of calls. These are put - for want of a better word - into a lockbox, and they are not accessed until we have a reasonable, articulable suspicion that we've got a dirty phone number, one associated with terrorism. And all we did then was simply - and I'm kind of speaking in a cartoon form here - we get to yell through the transom and say hey, any of you numbers in here ever talk to this now-known-to-be-dirty number in Yemen? And if a number in the Bronx kind of timidly raises its hand, so to speak, and says well, yeah, I talked to him every Thursday, we then get to say well, who the hell do you talk to? And Robert, that's the limit of that program. That's all it did.

SIEGEL: But going back to Mr. X's dilemma here and his complaint, in order for this program to work over the years - and we're talking about a threat that we foresee existing for many years...

HAYDEN: ...Right.

SIEGEL: You're going to store my data through many different CIA directors, NSA directors, FBI directors, members of Congress, presidents, all the while telephonic history - at least the metadata history - is going to be accessible to the government.

HAYDEN: It's going to be preserved. And access was a very important part of this program. And it was accessible by about two dozen people at NSA whose access to the database had keystroke monitoring on it. Now, look, any power in the government can be abused. But what you've just described is an equally powerful argument against arming policemen. That can be abused too, Robert.

SIEGEL: That can be abused.

HAYDEN: We actually need to give government some power to protect us...

SIEGEL: ...I'm surprised that you raised any law enforcement analogy.

HAYDEN: (Laughter).

SIEGEL: Half of this book is saying this isn't like law enforcement.

HAYDEN: No, it's not.

SIEGEL: Toward the end of your tenure at the Center Intelligence Agency, the question of interrogations became extremely controversial. You advised your successor - President Obama's nominee, Leon Panetta - what to say about waterboarding. I want you to tell us what your guidance was.

HAYDEN: Yeah. I simply said do not use the word torture and CIA in the same sentence ever again. You can object to some of the enhanced interrogation techniques. You can, in your heart of hearts, believe they meet some legal definition of torture. But Leon, you're taking over a workforce that did these things in good faith, that did these things with the assurance of the attorney general that they indeed were not torture. Do not accuse them of felonies.

SIEGEL: As a matter of institutional politics or as a matter of truth?

HAYDEN: Well, certainly as a matter of truth. Look, I get it. Honest men differ. A lot of good people describe these things as torture. The definitive legal judgment under which the agency was operating - and, you know, sooner or later, Robert, somebody's got to call balls and strikes, and that's the way it is.

SIEGEL: But if we read accounts of ISIS waterboarding hostages somewhere in Syria or Iraq, I don't think we'd hesitate but to say they're torturing these people.

HAYDEN: Well, did ISIS have someone present who was legally and morally responsible for the well-being of the hostage? Did ISIS have someone there with monitoring devices on the body of the hostage? Does ISIS have a rule that anyone in the room can call knock it off if they believe the interrogation...

SIEGEL: ...Now the person that's being waterboarded can't call knock it off.

HAYDEN: No.

SIEGEL: You're saying somebody who's part of the team.

HAYDEN: Right, who's part of the team.

SIEGEL: I will - I checked reference books. Merriam Webster's Dictionary cuts you a break. They say it's a form of interrogation, waterboarding. The Encyclopaedia Britannica calls it a method of torture. The Oxford English Dictionary calls it a form of torture. I mean, must one take a very legalistic and narrow view of torture rather than say look, you guys - what you did, you believed to be legal. You were acting in the flush of 9/11 with the expectation of further attacks, but this was wrong. What you did was wrong.

HAYDEN: Oh, that's a totally honorable position. I get that. What I don't get is someone who says by the way, it didn't work anyway.

SIEGEL: You would say it worked?

HAYDEN: I would say we got information from the people against whom we used enhanced interrogation techniques. We moved them from a zone that was pretty much represented by defiance to a zone where they were at least more compliant, more willing to talk about the things we believed we needed to know to keep the country safe.

SIEGEL: There's something peculiar in your book that relates to the question of sensitive information. There's a chapter titled "No Core, No War." It's about the intelligence that led to the bombing of a Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007.

HAYDEN: Right.

SIEGEL: Throughout the entire chapter, you describe a foreign country, a friend, an ally who brings intelligence to Washington that ultimately carries out the air strike. You never identify that country as Israel. In 2011, you yourself wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post also called "No Core, No War" in which you wrote, among other things, the plutonium plant at Al Kibar was destroyed by the Israelis in September 2007. It's there. Were you censored by the CIA from mentioning Israel in that chapter?

HAYDEN: You know, everything I write has to be cleared by not just CIA, but NSA and the DNI. And they simply made a request - would you please simply just not mention the name? Anyone who can point to the Mediterranean on a map, Robert, knows who did it. I didn't think it was essential that I actually lay it out.

SIEGEL: What kind of silliness is it that we don't mention who did this?

HAYDEN: Well, you might want to refer to another part of the book where actually I say my whole community needs to be far more translucent, if not transparent, with regard to the things that it does. Otherwise, will lose political legitimacy in the eyes of the American people. That said, I also have certain legal responsibilities that I embraced by having access to the kind of information I had access to.

SIEGEL: It does read like a very lawyered chapter without the name of Israel being mentioned in it. Gen. Michael Hayden, former director of the NSA and the CIA, now author of "Playing To The Edge: American Intelligence In The Age Of Terror." Thanks.

HAYDEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.