General Michael Hayden might look like a friendly older balding man, but look a little deeper. This 69-year-old had an illustrious career that included terms at both the CIA and NSA, with a stint during a particularly critical period of the NSA’s history: when the organization was perfecting and expanding its warrentless wiretapping program. In an interview with German publication Der Spiegel, he spoke out about the program, the future of intelligence and tensions between the United States and Germany caused by revelations of spying on German officials. What he had to say was an eye-opening glimpse into a world civilians rarely see.
As a former government official, General Hayden is in an interesting position to speak overall about the U.S. intelligence community, though he’s heavily limited in terms of what he can discuss due to confidentiality and security concerns. Between the lines, though, his defensiveness of the spying program comes through loud and clear, as does his affirmation that the United States has a clear right to spy not just on citizens, but foreign leaders and officers; “Look, we spy,” he told Der Spiegel. “We’re really good at it.”
He claims that the problem with the scandal lies not in the spying, but in the fact that it was revealed, suggesting that Snowden’s whistleblowing may have an undermining effect on the Internet: “There are countries that do not want the Internet as we know it. Russia, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia. The Snowden revelations will now allow them to argue that we Americans want to keep a single, unitary Internet, because it just helps us spy.”
However, he’s not being entirely honest when he discusses this, as he goes on to note that the NSA, like other intelligence agencies and branches of the military, aims for “domination” in all realms, including cyberspace. This is a long-held treatise of American doctrine, playing a key role in how we establish ourselves both domestically and internationally — the goal is to maintain total control over land, sea, air and other spaces, including virtual ones, allowing us to use them as we please and creating an environment where we can deny access and use to our enemies. The spying scandal fed into a larger iteration of the domination doctrine, explaining why some nations and their leaders might have room for pause.
General Hayden also acknowledged that the United States might have fouled up when it came to spying on European officials, especially in Germany, where privacy is valued very highly. While the United States may value a privacy culture (though General Hayden does not, as demonstrated in an exchange in 2006 when he indicated he didn’t think the Fourth Amendment didn’t protect people from spying), the German community takes it extremely seriously. Consequently, the spying scandal created a significant breach between the United States and Germany.
In a rare admission of wrongdoing, he suggested that the United States needs to work hard to repair its relations with Germany, and should focus on creating a more functional agreement between the two countries. While he didn’t directly call for an apology to the German government, he did indicate that he personally felt ashamed about the spying — but it was a tempered apology: “I am prepared to apologize for the fact we couldn’t keep whatever it was we may or may not have been doing secret and therefore put a good friend in a very difficult position. Shame on us. That’s our fault.”
This comment was a reminder that General Hayden seemed more concerned about being caught out at spying than the actual ramifications of the spying itself. As the man who oversaw much of the implementation of the spying program, he clearly felt an obligation to defend it, but his open defense raises interesting questions about what is going on inside the walls of the NSA right now, where new officials are making critical decisions about safety, security and surveillance.
Photo credit: Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.