When Gen. Michael V. Hayden arrived at Fort Meade as the director of the National Security Agency in 1999, he made an alarming discovery: America’s premier signals intelligence agency did not have email. Two years later, just as he was finally managing to modernize the agency’s obsolescent technology, planes slammed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In “Playing to the Edge,” a memoir of his decade at the apex of America’s spy agencies—he would head the CIA in 2006-09—Gen. Hayden offers a vivid account of his experience of the 9/11 attack and much else.
The day began like any other. But as the reports flowed in from New York and Washington, routine gave way to the exigencies of war: evacuating thousands of employees, hanging blackout curtains, moving key teams to emergency stations. Gen. Hayden recollects how, at day’s end, he returned home to his wife, embraced her and wept as they absorbed what had happened to our country.
“Playing to the Edge” offers a full excursion through the contemporary challenges facing American intelligence, including cyber warfare, Russian aggression, and armed conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq. But it also presents an intimate personal portrait—an account of how its author came to be the man he is, someone who entered the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps while in college in the late 1960s, who reveres his hometown of Pittsburgh (and its Steelers), and who prays weekly in church for the souls of his twin sisters, who died at birth when he was a boy of 10.
Naturally, given the years in which he held high office, much of Gen. Hayden’s book is devoted to the battle against terrorists. He makes it plain from the outset that though intelligence-gathering is often in tension with liberty and the rule of law, its purpose is to protect both. The tension is most acute in the effort to counter terrorism, for the mission is apprehending a class of people with whom our judicial system is not designed to grapple: the “not-yet guilty.”
The NSA has sought to do such grappling in a number of ways, perhaps most controversially with Stellarwind, a program designed to track the U.S.-routed telephone calls of foreign terror suspects. In 2005, the New York Times disclosed the program’s existence, igniting a political firestorm, with critics charging that Stellarwind amounted to warrantless wiretapping and that it was nearly worthless as an intelligence tool.
Unsurprisingly, Gen. Hayden rejects both contentions. He walks readers through the legal issues, acknowledging that the administration’s reasoning was, as in football, “playing to the edge.” But he concludes, relying on the opinions of executive-branch lawyers and FISA-court judges, that the operation was within the president’s constitutional authority as commander in chief.
As for the program’s effectiveness, Gen. Hayden harbors no doubts: Stellarwind, he writes, “uncovered illicit financing networks, detected suspect travel, discovered ties to aviation schools, linked transportation employees to associates of terrorists, drew connections to the illicit purchases of arms, tied U.S. persons to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and discovered a suspect terrorist on the no-fly list who was already in the United States.”
It was precisely the program’s utility as a counterterrorism tool that made its disclosure by the Times so damaging. In general, the numerous unauthorized news leaks of the post-9/11 era, Gen. Hayden reports, led some key intelligence sources to clam up; others were captured and executed. He does not supply any specific details to back up such claims, presumably because the CIA would not permit him to do so. While arguing for maximum possible openness, Gen. Hayden observes that “espionage thrives in the shadows, and secrecy is an essential component of its success.”
Particularly galling to Gen. Hayden was a 2006 New York Times scoop that compromised a top-secret program to track terrorist finances. Three years later, the newspaper’s editorial page was complaining that American intelligence was failing to halt what it described as “still a seemingly limitless stream of cash flowing to terrorist groups.” Pointing to the hypocrisy on display—the editorial was titled “Follow the Money”—Gen. Hayden wryly comments: “Thanks for the suggestion.”
The larger picture that Gen. Hayden draws makes vivid the extraordinary range of challenges facing American intelligence and the high level of uncertainty that the work entails. A case study: Roughly a decade ago, American intelligence observed that Syria was erecting an elaborate structure in the desert near a town called al-Kibar. CIA analysts puzzled over it but were unable to divine its purpose, labeling it “enigmatic.” It was only when “a liaison partner”—probably Israeli intelligence (although Gen. Hayden does not identify it as such)—provided detailed photographs that the CIA identified a nuclear reactor of North Korean design. Without local help, U.S. intelligence would have missed a Syrian nuclear-bomb development project. Israel destroyed the site in a bombing raid in 2007.
The lesson that Gen. Hayden takes from the Syrian affair is sobering. “We chalked this one up as intelligence success, after a fashion,” he writes. But he strongly intimates that it was really Israel’s success—and America’s failure. More broadly, he says, Syrian behavior “went beyond our understanding.” Extrapolating from this mixed record, Gen Hayden is pessimistic that American intelligence will fare well in tracking covert Iranian nuclear activity. If his pessimism is well-founded—and there are few people more qualified to judge—the surprise we experienced on 9/11 may be a prelude to a catastrophe of far greater dimensions.