On this episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, retired U.S. Air Force General Michael Hayden talks up his new book, “The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in the Age of Lies.” Hayden, who directed the NSA under President Clinton and the CIA under President George W. Bush, says the “golden age of electronic surveillance” is ending, as both regular Americans and foreign enemies are getting smarter about digital encryption.
You can read a write-up of the interview here or listen to the whole thing in the audio player above. Below, we’ve also provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, editor at large at Recode. You may know me as the director of the National Insecurity Agency, but in my spare time I talk tech, and you’re listening to Recode Decode from the Vox Media podcast network. Today in the red chair is Michael Hayden, a retired U.S. Air Force four-star general and the former director of the National Security Agency. He’s also the author of a new book, which is fantastic, called “The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in the Age of Lies.”
General Hayden, welcome to Recode Decode.
Michael Hayden: Thank you.
It is a tremendous book. It’s one of these ... I don’t know if you know this; I went to the Foreign Service School at Georgetown and I desperately wanted to be in the CIA, but it didn’t work out for me that way. So I’m very interested in what’s going on in intelligence, and obviously it’s been in the news quite a lot this week especially.
So I want to get to the book, but let’s talk about your background in terms of how you got to this, and I do want to talk a lot about the digital elements of this. I think a lot of this does now focus on where we’re going with intelligence and how it’s happening, and of course sort of the Trump administration assault on the idea of what intelligence should be, and you’ve been an outspoken critic. But let’s talk a little bit about your background. You’ve had a long history in this area.
Right. Career military, 39 years in the Air Force, most of it intelligence but not exclusively. Did some policy work. I was an instructor for four years, for example. But mostly, if you try to pin me down, I’m a career intelligence officer.
How did you get into that? You were in the Navy ...
Air Force, I’m sorry. You were in the Air Force because you just wanted to go into the Air Force?
No, I was in the Air Force because when I was going to college there was something called universal military service, and in my neighborhood, it meant universal. And so the decision my fiancé and I made that, well, everyone’s going, so why not go as an officer, take advantage of your education, and so I finished the ROTC program at Duquesne University. The Air Force, quite generously, gave me what was called an educational delay, so I stayed on campus for another two years getting a master’s degree. Both undergraduate and graduate degrees were in history and history just seemed to be a natural entrée to the field of intelligence.
I volunteered for it, they selected me, and the rest went forward.
My dad went the same way. He was in the Navy, actually; put him through college, went to medical school, the whole thing.
Talk about what intelligence was in those days, when you talk about that.
Yeah, so intelligence in those days ... I mean, keep in mind, I’m an old guy. This is the late ’60s, early ’70s; mechanical, linear and industrial world. I mean, in my studies, I studied something called AWPD1, Air War Plan Directive 1, which was the war plan against Hitler’s Germany. And very industrial age about key points, key nodes in an economy and so on.
So if you went into the Air Force in those days, certainly at my level, intelligence meant a lot about targeting, all right? But as I got more senior, as the world changed, intelligence, at least for me personally, became broader. And in my last 10 years in government, I was pulled to the national level by President Clinton to be the director of NSA, and then by President Bush to be the director of CIA. And in between, I had a year of something called the principal deputy director of National Intelligence. And so there you’ve got a career GI who spent a lot of time traveling the world and seeing things and trying to absorb, and now at the national level. So it’s far less about targeting, far less about kind of the mechanics of combat, and far more about the dynamics of global security or insecurity.
Right, right. Let’s talk a little about what that intelligence entailed back then and how it’s ... It’s obviously gotten more technological, more ... There was always technology elements to it. Always.
Always, that’s correct.
So talk about what it morphed into, more ... it was recordings ...
So the way I tell the story is, you know, there are multiple ways to learn about things other people don’t want you to learn about. We haven’t even ... Frankly, to be very candid, one is read the newspaper; I mean, there’s an awful lot of information in the public domain, and in that case, newspaper here is a metaphor for publicly available information.
There are kind of three broad strains that we use when we want to go steal secrets; humans, signals intelligence — which is about communications — and then imagery intelligence. And how we emphasize each of those lanes depends on the world in which we find ourselves. And to be very, very candid, and I think it’s suggested in the way you framed your question: When I became the director of NSA in 1999, we were moving into the digital age.
Google just was formed.
But you can see the wave coming, and frankly what we saw, and we said this to ourselves at NSA, it’s gonna be hard to keep up. It’s gonna be really technically challenging, but if we do it even half well, this is going to be the golden age of electronic surveillance. And before I scare a lot of you with that, I mean when you go out there and you want to learn what an enemy is up to, what an adversary might be thinking, when an adversary or an enemy begins to use all these modern tools, and especially back in that day, they were putting them up into a domain that was near defenseless.
Mm-hmm. Which is good for you.
It was good for me, and bad for you and me on the personal level.
So there was this era here, probably lasted the last 15, 16 years, in which signals intelligence, electronic espionage, was really privileged. It was an age in which we could harvest a great deal, and here I’m talking about legitimate requirements, legitimate targets, legitimate targeting, all right? But it was the golden age of that.
Now, as you and I are getting smarter about end-to-end encryption and how we want to make our own communications secure, so are our enemies. And so now we might actually now be seeing another shift. I mean, you don’t stop trying to collect things electronically, but now you realize, you know, that mine is played out a little bit and maybe we need to start digging over here with the other sources of information. That would be now human intelligence, and again, I come back to where I began, so much is now available that you don’t have to steal.
Right. Well, I do want to get into ...
Why don’t you just look?
I do want to get into the idea, because when we have all these companies that have all this information, are collecting all this information at the same time, it’s just a constant stream of signals, like you were saying, and also the availability of information.
But let’s go back. When you were head of NSA and CIA, the principal stuff you all were working on were to gather intelligence using the newest technologies.
We were. But again, you still had this exquisite slice at the top based on human sources. And there are some things that you just cannot get otherwise than having ...
Explain that for people.
Well sure. I mean, people may or may not report faithfully on a meeting in terms of the minutes, the communication.
They may or may not represent the meaning of the meeting well on a phone call that you may intercept, and so it’s really cool to have a guy in the meeting. And that’s, in essence, what human sources are; people who are part of an organization that’ll be very candid, part of an organization that believes has their loyalty, but you have some way or another convinced that person that they have a higher, greater loyalty. And they begin telling you things that happened.
And the problem with human intelligence is that it’s not always accurate.
It’s dealing with humans.
Humans, right, so they don’t ... Either they lie or they don’t remember correctly.
Right. So when you look at a source, and this fast-forwards right to ... You know, ripped from today’s headlines. Think of the Steele dossier.
Right, and all that information. For someone like me, the Steele dossier is the beginning of the journey, not the end of the journey. And so for every assertion in the dossier, which is all human sourced, for every assertion we would say, “Would that person be likely to know that? Has that person told me other things that turned out to be true?” and then, “Do I have other information that confirms what he or she is claiming?” And you go through that with every human source, with every piece of data they toss at you.
Mm-hmm. We’re gonna get into your book in a second, but when you were running this, what ... At the beginning of the internet age, you were in nationally. Before that, you had run all kinds of presumably ... Things to get information, to be out in the field.
I did. But early in my career, I would’ve been on the analytics side of intelligence.
Meaning people bringing data.
So I was the customer of collection. At least 15 years, the backend of my career, I was the producer of the raw information.
Right, right. So when you get data back then, you would get the data and then you would analyze it and then come to a conclusion based on all the best takes.
The best available.
Right, right. And in most cases, the way it was done — because I want to get into this idea of the assault on intelligence — is that it’s not a guess, but it’s a version of a guess based on ... It’s like reporting or anything else.
Exactly right. We would use the word estimate or assessment. In darker days, we would use the phrase WAG: Wild-Ass Guess.
I do those all the time.
But it’s based ... No. 1 — and we get to the thesis of the book in a bit — it’s based on the pursuit of objective reality, all right? And that’s really important. Now, you can get that wrong. I’ll throw myself on the mercy of the court here and say I was in the room when we all voted on the Iraq weapons of mass destruction National Intelligence estimate. We were pursuing an accurate view of objective reality. We were wrong. So you can get it wrong even if you try your best.
I tell a story of myself. After the WMD problem, I was talking to a bunch of what I’ve now learned to call “high net worth individuals” as director of CIA; I was just kinda one over the world. And I did my big hand little map, and we’ve got this and this, and we worry, and then I got a question. He said, “General, on a scale of zero to 10, how would you rate CIA analysis?” And I paused for a moment, then I said, “First thing you gotta know is we don’t do 8, 9 or 10. If you can get it to 8, 9, or 10, they’re asking the Department of Commerce the question. They aren’t asking us the question.”
And so intelligence may ... It’s obviously an imperfect human enterprise, but it is based, and I emphasize this in the book, it’s based on Enlightenment values: Evidence, data, hypothesis, test.
But in that time period, people did generally ... You know, weapons of mass destruction, there’s a series of mistakes, some of which you were involved in, some of which you weren’t. But over time, there’s been misses in Vietnam, there’s been misses ... Like assessments ...
Actually, the intelligence guys were much better in Vietnam than the policy makers.
That’s right, were much better in Vietnam. But policy makers didn’t listen to what they were saying. That’s right, you’re absolutely right.
But in terms of the utilization of this intelligence, it depends on who’s using it, what they believe, how much they get of it, what mentality you are going into it with; if you’re a Dick Cheney listening to it, it’s different than a Barack Obama listening to that kind of stuff.
Right, exactly. And by the way, that’s the burden on us; we’ve gotta know our client.
Right, exactly. But in general for the most part, most people trusted the system, which you talk about in this book. Why is that a good thing, to trust the system in terms of ...
Because fundamentally — and this is my life experience and I realize this becomes a discussion point when I take it to audiences outside of Washington — but my life experience is these are highly talented, professional, dedicated Americans working under the rule of law to do the best possible job they can. Now I know about original sin and the vale of tears and imperfect human existence, but I don’t question the motivation of the people in the intelligence community to get to the most accurate view of objective truth.
Right, right. And where it gets twisted is where people’s objectives are depending on ...
So you’re feeding into a policy process. And Kara, this is one of the real difficult things: If you’re not relevant to the policy maker, you probably should be on a university campus. I mean no offense, because I’m now on a university campus, but you need to be relevant to the policy process. So somehow, you’ve got to be true to your roots, I’m the fact-based objective guy, but still be relevant to the decision maker.
Right, so they could feel that they could rely on what you’re saying.
And to actually change their mind even though you’re cutting against preference, policy or personality. That’s an art.
But the system, for the most part, worked.
Yeah, I think so.
There was a trust in the system.
There was certainly a degree of ... What’s the right word? Deference might be a little too strong, but you know, you ignore the intelligence guy at your peril because that represented that institutional wisdom of the government. Now you can, and presidents have, and we’re accustomed to that; that’s okay, he’s president and we’re not.
Right. So even in cases, say you have a J. Edgar Hoover who has agendas ... That intelligence agencies have agendas, which I think ... The reason I’m asking is because this has now become very ...
Yeah. So Hoover, I think by an objective measure, even for somebody from my tribe, is a very dark episode, and aren’t we glad we are beyond any one man having that kind of control? So what we now have is try to get a balance between presidents being allowed to pick their own team, but the team broadly being institutionally focused. So I’ll give you one quick example: Despite all the to-ing and fro-ing that candidate and then President-elect Trump had with the intelligence community, he changed two people, all right? The director of National Intelligence and the director of CIA. Everybody else, steady as you go.
Right, same people, same people. And we’ll get into this. So what is happening now in the breakdown? And I want to talk about it from not just a Trump perspective, because I think that’s definitely the thing that’s fueling it, but a macro perspective of all this information, the distrust of information, how it goes. So we’re gonna talk about a lot of that in the next section, but I want to sort of ... So what prompted you to write this book? Was it because of the Trump administration and the assaults? Which he started early on.
He did. So the proximate cause ...
And before I ... He’s also reflecting a feeling that is out there.
That’s my point.
He often has a lizard brain in terms of parroting back issues, whether it be around nervousness about tech, about ... It’s often reflecting quite a reality opinion.
Yeah. I mean, this deserves a lot of unpeeling. But very briefly, yeah, the proximate cause was what the president was saying and doing. But you know, you can’t get two or three thoughts into that without realizing that President Trump is effect, not cause; he is cleverly riding a popular wave that, and I begin the book very clearly with the Oxford dictionary’s word of the year for 2016: Post-truth, decision-making based less on data and evidence and more on feeling, preference, emotion, loyalty, tribe, grievance. And that is a societal trend that he decided to exploit and ride. So it is a broader phenomenon, and I actually bring up in the book, running counter to the motive thinking in the West since the Enlightenment in the 17th century.
Which is to use science, data ...
Why has that happened? What has occurred? What has made post-truth the thing? Let’s talk about the bigger picture, and we’ll get into Trump in the next part because I think he’s fueled it rather severely.
Right. So it’s somewhat global; not universal, but somewhat global. So we see it in some Eastern European countries, certainly in the Russian federation, here in the United States. It may be despair in the face of such rapid change, that folks are now overwhelmed by their circumstances and look for something that seems to offer, for want of a better word, salvation. And now we are responding instinctively, tribally, based on self-identity rather than on data and information. And oh by the way, and I’m sure we’ll get into this, that is absolutely tied to the technology we now use in order to get information.
To get information. And so when you think about this post-truth society, or post-fact society, what are the hallmarks of that? From your perspective, what are the hallmarks? You said tribal. You went through them very quickly, but let’s go through them a little less quickly.
Sure. I mean, it’s based on something other than evidence. I’ll give you two quick examples; they pivot around the same reality, but two different people. So Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower, okay? That’s the accusation. So I’m trying to talk ...
There’s a new one this week, but we’ll get to that.
Yeah, right. So I’m trying to talk to people who don’t sound like me. So I write in the book that I go to Pittsburgh, my brother gets all of his friends in the back of the bar. I walk in, I know most of these people, I grew up with their brothers or sisters, their moms and dads, and we have a great two-and-a-half-hour conversation. But I get to the point where I say, “So how many actually believe Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower?” A bunch of hands go up. I go, “Really?” I said, “I’m former director of NSA. I know something about this. That didn’t happen; the plumbing doesn’t work that way. What evidence do you have that that actually happened?” And one individual in the front of the room, and she got some affirmative nods, kinda put her arms out, shrugged her shoulders, and went “Obama.” There it is. That’s the evidence.
The president was being stalked by John Dickerson one Sunday morning on the CBS morning show, and John was pressing the president on facts, data, “Why do you say that happened?” And the president’s getting very frustrated, and finally he kinda sits himself behind the Resolute desk saying, “We’re done.” John keeps asking and the president then says, “A lot of people agree with me. A lot of people were saying it.” And Kara, that’s it, all right? For President Trump and for a bunch of Americans, if I can make it popular or trending, it’s a departure point.
Right, right. So how did you feel when you walked out of that bar? Because that was a striking ... You’ve talked about this; a bunch of this is striking. I’ve had that moment with family members. Everybody has, and I’m like, I know what actually ... I was there and they seem to have a different ...
They do. And I try to reflect this in the writing, I try to be very, very respectful. A line I put in the book is, “There were more military veterans and parents of military veterans in that bar in Pittsburgh than any green room or boardroom I’ve ever been in.” So these are good people. I mean, in essence, I write their self-description is, “I go to work, I pay my taxes, I go to church, I’m part of the PTA, I make my kids do their homework, and no one seems to pay attention to me.” And I actually get that part.
You get that part.
All right, we’re here with Michael Hayden. He’s the ... General Michael Hayden; you deserve that title.
He’s the author of “The Assault on Intelligence.” Obviously he’s been a high-ranking intelligence official for many years, the NSA, the CIA, and we’re talking about the post-truth society.
We’re here with General Michael Hayden, the author of “The Assault on Intelligence.” Let’s talk about that assault. We were just talking about people not using intelligence, essentially, just using feelings.
That’s right, that’s right, and now up to and including I think the president. Let me give you a concrete example.
I like that you say “I think.” I think we’re pretty certain on that. I’m going to go for “we know.”
Okay. A concrete example that plays out like a morality play. It’s a little long, but let me do it.
Go right ahead.
The president during the campaign cites the other. The other is a convenient campaign tool for him.
Right, right. Right.
One of the others was the class of people we call refugees. He described during the campaign a near-apocalyptic threat to the United States from refugees entering this country and a near-dystopic vetting system that we were using to make sure these refugees were indeed safe.
All right? Neither of those are true, all right? Then, eight days into the administration he issues this executive order that’s frankly a Muslim ban, although they claim it’s not a Muslim ban.
Oh, it is. Yeah.
It’s a Muslim ban. There were court challenges to it, there was an amicus brief. The amicus brief was signed by five former directors or acting directors of CIA, two former deputy directors, a former director of national intelligence, and the former director of the National Security ...
They should know.
Most tellingly, Kara, is that nobody in our tribe in our old jobs spoke up in favor, who are currently in government. The silence is what the signal was.
All right? We objected to it on three grounds. No. 1, just the methodology. It’s not based on data.
No. 2, it was really unkind to the world’s least fortunate. No. 3, it was more than just being not necessary and unkind, it was dangerous, because it lived the narrative that there is undying enmity between Islam and the West.
Which is the narrative of ISIS and Al-Qaeda. We were filling in the recruiting poster for them.
That is a totally non-fact-based decision that actually, again, beyond useless was harmful. That’s the kind of thing that worries me about how decisions are made in the administration.
So, here we are in a society where we have more information than ever. I’m going to get to the internet companies and their responsibilities in this in our next section, but here you have all this information and all this data, but the decisions are being made based on instinct or what?
An a priori narrative of how the world works. The president has a preternatural confidence in his own instincts. He freely admits he doesn’t read and he doesn’t have patience for briefings.
For briefings by intelligence.
In this society, what happens then in this situation? Because you can’t really do anything if you present someone 20 facts and they just don’t ...
Your responsibility is to continue to work the problem. All right? Now, to be very candid, I hardly ever went in there with a syllogism for George Bush where I went, “Whereas and whereas,” and the president says, “Well, heck, Mike, therefore.” The best you can do on a good day is to create a left- and right-hand boundary for logical, legitimate policy decisions.
So, on one hand, on the other hand.
Right. If you go too far over here you can guarantee that’s just not going to work. If you go too far over there you can guarantee that’s not going to work. You try to set the framework.
Give a normal briefing. How would a normal briefing ... You were talking about left hand, other hand.
Right. I actually think the briefings are probably normal, with the exception of something you already suggested. George Bush learned in a different way than Barack Obama, in a different way than Donald Trump. You have to key the briefing to the personality of the president.
President Bush learned in the discussion, in the argument. President Obama in the quiet moment, in the reflection. President Trump I’ve never briefed but I’m told it’s all visual. All right? It’s the graph, the picture of the map that catches ...
That makes the wheels start to turn. You get in there and you make the best presentation possible in the way you think most likely to succeed in getting inside the head of the president. The problem, Kara, is I don’t ... There are times when I don’t see connections between the workings of the fact people, and it’s just not intel, it could be the FBI.
Or the Department of Justice.
“We went went and spoke to them. We physically saw this, and this is what it’s like there.”
Yeah. What we’re seeing is I’m not so sure now how controlling — the objective view that these institutions try to present — how controlling that is in the president’s behavior.
One example. Again, left- and right-hand boundaries. None of this works like a syllogism. Let me give you three sentences from the current intelligence community. All right? Not Hayden, but the current guys.
Iran is not violating the nuclear agreement. There are no material breeches. Iran is further away from a weapon with the agreement than they would be without it.
We know more about the Iranian program because of the agreement than we would without having such an agreement.
We still walked away from the agreement.
The intelligence guys laid it out so at least the president knew the grounds on which it might not be a good idea to do this.
But he did it, and he did it based, I think, on instinct. Let me be perfectly candid. If I’m now a foreign intelligence officer and I’m briefing the prime minister and he pulls me in there and says, “I can’t figure this guy out, Mike. Give me some suggestions as to how I can predict his course of action,” I frankly would have to say, “Well, Mr. Prime Minister, I don’t have evidence for this, but my instincts are look at whatever President Obama did.”
“And do the opposite.”
“Now you’re going to have a pretty good idea of where President Trump is going to go.”
I see, what I think he’s essentially saying is, “I don’t believe you.” Correct? On all these ... If you get this amount of briefing, it’s telling.
That’s interesting. I actually talked to some people who have experience briefing presidents in the book. They make the point, “Hey, look. We’ve had presidents who didn’t believe us.”
In fact, what that means is, “No, I don’t think your view of objective reality is actually correct. I have a different view.”
We did that with Dick Cheney a lot.
Vice President Cheney.
Right? That’s fine. We know how to do that.
We have occasionally had presidents in our history who may have lied. Okay.
One or two.
Okay, we know how to do that.
Right? This isn’t that. This is the president for whom the instinctive departure point for decision making is not an agreed objective view of reality.
Right, right, right.
He’s departing from another point. We’ve never had that.
I was talking to one of these PDB — president daily brief — briefers. We were reflecting on the ... Remember the speech in West Virginia to the Boy Scouts?
“I’m the best” speech.
Yeah, yeah. It was kind of a campaign rally.
A little tasteless, yeah.
That caused a disturbance in the Force. There were reporting on it. The president then said, “Hey, no way. The leadership of the Boy Scouts called me. They said it was the greatest speech ever given.” Well, yeah. It never happened.
But the question we asked ourselves, does he know that?
Does he think he got called?
Exactly. Does his mind make the distinction between the past that happened and the past that would be useful? We just looked at each other and said, “Perhaps not.” That’s the difference. Before this sounds too condemnatory, because it is rather critical.
God makes us all in different ways.
This may be how he worked. But for me, for my tribe, that presents challenges we’ve never had.
It’s interesting. It makes me think about, when I think about doing my own job. When I was a young reporter I used to think, “What is this person lying to me about?” often. Like, “Oh, what are they keeping from me? What don’t they want to tell me?”
I think as I got better it was always, “What are they lying to themselves about? What did they need to do to get through the day? What falsehoods do they have to gin up in order to convince themselves of certain things?”
Back to the dynamic of human intelligence.
Right. Right, exactly.
When you have this assault on intelligence, this past week they’re now ... They’re investigating, it seems like, an unsubstantiated rumor.
No evidence of ...
But they’re doing it anyway.
Yes, they are.
What has happened here? Because now they’re investigating things made up.
Presumably. “I have a hunch.”
We did that with Trump Tower, we did that with this whole unmasking fiasco. If you recall that they were requesting U.S. identities.
I’ve been a critic of the Obama administration for a variety of policy questions. I just felt compelled as a former director of NSA to say, “No, what you’re describing here is ridiculously normal. That’s how this works.”
There’s nothing untoward, and now we’ve got this politically motivated infiltration of the Trump campaign. What I’ve been saying, although I’m not a lawyer ...
Because he can say all the things he wants.
Now there’s action behind it.
There is, so I begin by saying I’m not a lawyer, but I’m pretty sure that’s neither illegal nor unconstitutional. It’s just unprecedented.
I describe myself as a creature of the executive branch. I know Article II, I know the great powers that the Constitution gives the president. He is the chief law enforcement officer of the country. All right? He can do this, but there’s a reason no one else has never done it, because the deeper, longer-term values is the independence of law enforcement.
And the Department of Justice. Here, again, it’s indifferent to that objective reality, to that objective truth. The president launches — and I quickly add, there’s 35 percent of the country now who simply [believe] that’s enough evidence.
Right, because he says so.
It happened because the president has made this accusation. I think Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein, his response was fairly elegant. He kind of tossed it to the AG.
Which in essence responded to the president. I don’t think that was a satisfactory response, but the president doesn’t have any other clear moves to make after Rosenstein did that. I think that was a decent deflection still trying to preserve some things that we need to preserve.
Right. This, to me, is an assault on intelligence. This is.
When you’re talking about ... There’s some people in the country on both sides of the spectrum that are like, “Good. Let’s destroy the intelligence system because it’s been based on lies, it’s been based on manipulations, it’s been based on this,” which I think he’s in that camp, and there’s plenty on the left who have that idea of it. Talk about what does when there’s this assault, because we’ve set up a system that we’ve had forever, really.
Since revolutionary times we’ve had spies, since George Washington, spies have been everywhere.
Right. I try to draw the ... Obviously it’s a book about espionage and I’m the intel guy, but it tries to be a broader book about the values of how our society makes decisions.
Very quickly, Enlightenment values animate most of Western civilization, but they really animate America.
Because our foundational documents were written by Enlightenment scholars. The Hamiltons, the Madisons, the George Masons of the world.
If we back away from the Enlightenment, whoa, that is a very serious thing.
What I actually say is that the ... It’s interesting that the high friction points of the Trump administration have been with intelligence, law enforcement, the courts, science, scholarship and journalism. What do they all have in common?
They’re all evidence-based. All imperfect, all can get things wrong, some may be occasionally corrupt.
But their own safe haven is that they pursue truth.
As a job.
Therefore it’s not surprising. I make the point, something that you suggested by your question, that my truth seekers, intel guys, I spent most of my career being criticized by the other truth seekers on that list. We’ve been criticized for the way we acquire data.
Electronic surveillance, interrogations and so on. Kara, that dispute has been absolutely muted. We, the intelligence community, has been embraced by those other communities.
I know. I know, I know. The press loves you.
Because we’re data guys. We’ll get back to that other question directly.
We’ll be fighting later.
But right now it’s all organizing around circling the wagons, around people who bear data.
Who bear truth. This is a burden that intelligence shares with other elements of society.
Where does that lead if that is happening on a daily basis? You do get the sort of hand-wringing that goes on every night on cable news. You’ve been on cable. I saw Sally Yates making a very persuasive argument that this was unprecedented.
If I hear the word ... I’m like, “No, it’s not,” because we’re going to have a president tomorrow who’s going to do another thing. He’s going to push even further.
What happens? Because then I think in a lot ways ... In the next segment I do want to talk about the impact of all this information that we get from all these platforms.
Because I think it plays right into this. What occurs when this is happening, when there’s one precedent broken after the next? Is it that you just ...
Yeah. Actually, let me give you ...
“I can’t believe he did that.” “I’m so tired of that one.”
Let me give you the good news, all right? I really mean this, the sound you hear from outside of our studio here are not American institutions crumbling. They’re American institutions holding their ground.
Against unprecedented behavior from the executive. This is a fascinating dynamic, and just give me a minute to describe it. Constitutionally, the limits on the president should be the Article I guys, it should be the Congress.
Okay? That’s actually not happening.
All right? You have a president expanding his authorities, doing unprecedented things, but no real limitations, rarely.
By the group that’s supposed to ...
By the Congress. He’s actually being opposed by the agencies and departments of his own executive branch that are pushing back against some of these unprecedented requests and behavior. Then, weirdness of weirdnesses, the president is trying to enlist his party in Congress, which constitutionally — in all meanings of that word — should be the agent limiting him. He’s now trying to use his party in Congress to strike out at the agencies of his own executive branch who are pushing back against him. How strange is that?
It is strange. Why is that? Why is Congress behaving like this, from your long experience?
I just think they’ve put short-term gains and party ...
Tax reform or whatever.
Yeah, over these longer-term things. Back to the original premise, the good news is the sounds you hear are institutions trying to hold their ground. The advice I give to intelligence people in the book is serve the president, make him successful. I do a little carve-out for the political appointees, think twice before you do this.
Everyone else who should just be rowing, I say, “Row.” Make this man more successful than he otherwise would be.
You know how to count, you know how the Electoral College works. He’s the legitimate president of the United States. Then I say, “Obviously you have to protect your own personal integrity, so keep a letter in the lower right hand desk drawer.”
Beyond that, you have got to protect the integrity of the institution which cannot resign, which cannot walk. Therefore, although we accommodate all presidents, because we should, you cannot accommodate any president so much that you undercut the legitimacy of the institution in its own eyes, the eyes of the people, or in the eyes of history. That’s the struggle right now.
All right, so you’re saying this is fighting back. Again, what would it take for the Congress to act in that regard? They just won’t. This particular party will not.
Here’s my macro statement based on judgment rather than scientific surveys. There is no body of evidence that Bob Mueller can prepare and present that would convince a Republican-controlled Congress to draw up articles of impeachment.
No matter what?
No matter what he said.
Yeah. Well, by the way, I don’t think impeachment’s a good idea. I think because there are so many Americans who believe the president, who believe in the president. And they’re good Americans, all right? That you do not want to create the impression that people like you and me just conducted a soft coup against the duly-elected president of the United States.
Right. Got it.
This needs to be resolved in 2020.
In election form, in election form.
When you have the assault on intelligence — and then I do want to talk about the role of these giant tech companies in this — when you have this assault on intelligence, where does ... When you have people saying lies over and over again, people do believe them, ultimately.
John McLaughlin, former deputy CIA director.
I worked for him.
No, not John. Oh, no. Not John. That’s a different John McLaughlin.
Yeah, John McLaughlin, the intel guy. John gave me a quote that I use in the book, and I cite it. It says, “You repeat the lie often enough that the lie becomes the truth, and then good people defend the lie.”
Right, exactly, which is what we’re going to get into in a second because of the internet, because I think it creates, amplifies and weaponizes information in a way that has been unprecedented.
We’re here with General Michael Hayden. He’s the author of “The Assault on Intelligence.” He also is a long-term intelligence operative everything. Everything. Worked in the Air Force, all kinds ... He ran the NSA, ran the CIA. When we get back we’re going to talk about the impact of these internet companies and these platforms on this whole difficult situation we find ourselves in.
We’re here with General Michael Hayden. He has a new book, “The Assault on Intelligence.” We’ve just been talking about the Trump administration and its assault on intelligence and the difficulty of that and the things they keep pushing forward, but what one of the things that goes hand and glove with it is how the internet, the enormous cornucopia of information that we get, both correct and incorrect, has had. Give me like a quick five-second primer on what you think the culpability of Facebook, Google and others are in this area.
Yeah, so my quick summary is here’s a case where technology and ambition have gotten ahead of law, policy and most importantly norms and education, and so now what you have is this tsunami of information coming at us, and — dare I use the word — in an uncurated fashion.
Right. You all get it in when you’re in the CIA or everyone else, and then you sort it.
Right, and so we have a population that is ... their historical habits have been based upon digesting curated news, for better or for worse, but curated. Now, they have ...
Right, and now you have news coming at you in just overwhelming volumes. How strange is this? The Director of CIA, former, me, gets invited to Sweden for Nobel weekend to take part in a day-long discussion on the meaning of truth. Yeah, exactly. Right? So I go there and I do my 10- or 12-minute TED talk. I participate in a couple of panels, but I went there to learn. They’re really smart people. There’s one woman there, Zeynep Tufekci, Turkish by birth, North Carolinian by choice, who’s an expert on social media. She pins the blame on the algorithm. All right.
Ah, the algorithm.
The algorithm is designed to keep you on the site. All right. The algorithm is designed to create clicks because that’s the profit engine. She uses the example, and I fully cite this in the book, of it’s like Doritos. You can’t eat just one because the first Dorito gives you salt and fat, which creates this craving for salt and fat. So what the engine does as currently constructed, is you go into Facebook or some social site ...
Facebook more than any of them.
Yeah, and it knows you as well as you know yourself. It generally tends to give you pleasing things. The longer you stay, the more it’s Doritos, the more it drives you to things that reinforce your going-in position. So rather than giving you a picture of the tsunami of information, it actually drives you into the darker corners of your own self-identified ghetto, and so you end up dealing with people, data on the web, that simply confirms what it was ...
Right. Confirmation by association.
So, it doesn’t drive to a discussion, it drives us to our corners. There’s a fellow named McNamee.
Who wrote an article in the Atlantic, early supporter, early investor, mentor.
He made quite a lot of money from Facebook.
I’d like him to give it back. Roger, give back the money.
But, he points out this very dynamic, that it is the essence of how the algorithm works that creates — reinforces — the buys.
Right. Mark Zuckerberg, I’ve talked to Mark about this issue, and of course he’s written essays about it, like, “We’ve got to figure out a way to move away from that.” They’re all trying to do this. I am like, “It’s designed like this,” so it doesn’t, you know ...
Right now, it’s ...
A horse is a horse. That’s what it is. It’s not an elephant, so this is what we have. So what is their culpability and their role? How did you look at, say, what’s happening in the Facebook hearings? I thought that Congress was almost ... I couldn’t ... I was shocked by their inability to ask questions.
Here’s the problem with Congress, all right? Because I had this as director of NSA, I would go there and explain, so remember I told you the golden age of surveillance and all that? Obviously now your comms are intermingled with Abu Zubaydah’s comms and that presents a problem. I’m trying to send out, “We’re still doing what you want, but it’s a little touchy over here.” I give this briefing, and I’m a liberal arts major, for God’s sake. I’m using straightforward terms, and the first question I get from the dais I suddenly realize, “Okay, they did not understand a thing I said.”
What you’ve got is people who are at best digital immigrants and didn’t know enough to ask the kinds of questions that we’ve been reviewing.
No, and then had too much of an ego not to give their five minutes to the person who did.
Which was 100 percent ...
I’ve experienced that.
Again, I try to impose responsibility here. I don’t try to impose guilt.
On these companies.
On the companies. Remember what I said, it’s technology and ambition outrunning law, policy, education and societal norms.
Right, but in a lot of ways ...
Now you’ve got to correct.
Yeah, but in a lot of ways these companies have become the CIA, they are the information owners, givers, the data owners, they relentlessly hoard information and it’s useful.
Talk about signals. There’s signals everywhere. It’s everything. It’s humans, signals and imagery. It’s everything all at once, like you were just talking about. What is their responsibility? Then they of course tangle with the government on encryption and everything else. Now they have to become ... they’re the purveyors of information, they’re supposed to be the protectors of privacy, they’re the abusers of privacy. I just recently interviewed Tim Cook on a show for MSNBC where he talked about this. They have a very different point of view, which is that this should not be happening. The Facebooks of the world should not be having this much information. What do these companies have to do, or do they not have to do anything? Who’s responsible for this?
I think they do. I’m not bright enough to suggest what the new algorithm looks like, but there’s some low-hanging fruit here.
Well, for example, political ads on Facebook should be regulated.
They absolutely should be ... I’ll be interviewing Sheryl Sandberg, that’ll be my first question. I’ll be, “Whaaaat?”
We all went to the same high school, or different high schools, but we learned the same values. I’m really reluctant for the government to monitor information, suppress information, to say that’s untrue information, and so a really, silly simple thing is Rotten Tomatoes for news sites, so that you actually get a rating from a news site based upon some objective criteria. I’ve gone to badly rated movies, but I knew what I was getting into.
You know and remove these.
There is some easy, low-hanging fruit that we can use to make this immediately ...
To curate better, essentially.
Exactly. Again, not suppressing, but giving people an additional view to allow them to make their own evaluation about sources.
Then there’s the abuse, not just various sources, there was one source at one time on Facebook I was arguing with for the longest time that Hillary Clinton was a lizard at one point, and that kept going everywhere. I was like, “I’m pretty certain, I’ve met her, she’s not a lizard. I can’t say for sure, but this should not be going on.” There’s false news that goes on that creates, then people get a hold of it, like your friends in the bar.
Okay, another low-hanging piece of fruit: It is within our technology to know when we’re arguing with a human being or a server farm in St. Petersburg. I don’t think ... again, to a degree of certitude that is sufficient, I think the machines we own should suppress the machines they own when they try to pretend as if they’re real people.
Is this what Russia did? Because Facebook’s making the argument it wasn’t that big of a deal, it was more the advertising that Trump and Clinton did well or not well. How do you assess what they ... everyone is sort of shocked by it and I’m like, “Of course they took advantage. Why wouldn’t you? They’re good at it.” It’s like, you would do it, right, if you were running ... working for Putin?
Oh yeah, working for Putin, I would. Actually, though, working here ... I’d be the last person to claim the United States has never conducted a covert influence campaign, which is technically what this is, but you know, even in my time in the agency, and I’ve been out 10 years now, those became very problematic because we’re not allowed to influence American opinion. And how, then, do you use this digital age to affect maybe a legitimate foreign intelligence activity without it blowing back on the United States? That immediately presents itself, which is not an issue ...
For the Russians.
For the SVR.
Yeah, they love it. They love to do it. How do you assess they did? I’m gonna interview Sheryl Sandberg next week. What’s the question I need to ask her?
They did do it. We can argue what was the primary flavor in the stew, but there’s no question ...
And what the impact was.
Right. There was no question they were in the stew. Look, I was a student on this as well when we were trying to write the book and I went to a fellow you probably know, Clint Watts, and my wife and I sat in an office room in Manhattan for an afternoon and walked him through, and the story that really struck me was not the campaign, was Jade Helm 15. It was an exercise, special operations, in Texas and several other Southern states that Russian bots and the outright media, and here’s a really important aspect, there is a powerful echo chamber between what the Russians say and outright media in the United States, created such concern in the state of Texas that the Governor of Texas had to call out the state guard, which is kind of a volunteer organization, to watch the feds because the stories that were circulating in Texas was this was an attempt by the Obama administration to round up political opponents, up to and including abandoned Walmarts being used as concentration camps and boxcars transiting the state with leg irons on the floor.
There you’ve got what I can only assume to be are good, sensible Texans kind of going crazy on something that has no basis in reality, fed by Russian bots and outright media.
Amplified by social media.
It’s the amplification that I think is interesting, in terms of the power. One of the things that struck me when I was talking to Mark, he was saying, “I don’t want to be in California and make decisions about this platform like that.” He doesn’t want to stop it. And I made the argument, “You made the platform. You have to make values.” Every company has to have a value-decision process.
Again, back to is it a person or not? Again, talking to Clint, his art and science showed me oh no, this is the bot lighting up here and here. Again, to a degree of certitude that should be sufficient, they should be suppressed.
But when you’re with the people from Silicon Valley, they don’t want to do that. You spent some time with them and their influence, I think, is massive in a way that I don’t even think government people get.
Yeah. No. 1, they’re engines of the American economy and God bless them, but you know, there was always this sense out there of what I would call extraterritoriality.
What’s that? I love that word.
They’re kind of beyond the normal scope.
Yeah, yeah. “We’re going to Mars. Leave us alone.”
Exactly. “We’re living here in this domain,” and I think there has been, and I’ve seen this movement over the last decade, they realize, “I guess we’re not.” You do see a lot of them now opening offices up in this city, because they now realize American opinion, American law, legislative processes are now very important to them. They’re not living in this extraterritorial existence in which the normal functions of government don’t apply. They do. “I’m assuming civic responsibility.” I’ve talked to folks ...
At each of these companies.
Yeah. Eric Schmidt, for example, I once said, “Look Eric,” [I’m the] former director of NSA, “Look here, I understand your challenge. You’re an international company.” He stopped me. He said, “Mike. We’re an American company with international clients,” which is a good, powerful sense of social responsibility.
What has to happen between the intelligence agencies and tech? They of course got into it over spying within their own systems and tapping into it. There was an encryption fight that Apple and Microsoft particularly ...
No. 1, the Snowden revelations, and stuff goes out there and we go into a deep hole. My personal view on a lot of that is unwarranted, but it’s real and you’ve got to deal with it.
Let me tell you a story from my personal history. I’m a Clinton appointee. Late Clinton, I get called by John Podesta to come down to a White House meeting on something called MTOPS, Millions of Theoretical Operational somethings Per Second. It’s computing power. We had export limits on what Cray could export to other countries, because obviously computer power is a cryptologic advantage for us. I went down to the first meeting and said, “No, no. We love export limits.”
“Well, could you rethink it?” “Yeah, okay, fine.” We go back to Fort Meade and we huddle up, and in great earnestness we huddled up and went down to the next meeting and said, “We don’t want you selling anything to these” — very small list — “of countries. Other than that, have a ball. Go ahead and sell it.” Our pivot was the sudden realization that whatever tactical transient advantage we would have because our computer is bigger than their computer wasn’t at all as important as American industry dominating the supercomputer world.
That applies to a whole bunch of things. Now, when you get to San Bernardino and the phone, it surprised a lot of people that a bunch of former directors of NSA sided with Apple.
So did Ash Carter, which was really interesting.
And we did on security grounds, that although Jim Comey had a legitimate request for counter-terrorism law enforcement forensic needs, fulfilling that need in total made America less safe because of what Apple would have to do. I do think it does require this kind of, not reflexive ...
Right, “Give me the phone.”
On the part of the government.
I remember meeting with an FBI agent and I was like, if your case depends on opening this phone, you better get better at your job with human intelligence. There’s 10 ways to figure this one out.
We had that whole debate on encryption. We should have a key, and frankly ...
That’s coming back again.
I’m a liberal arts major and not the technologist, but I don’t know how you get a key without ... I know how it used to work when we played offense. Any hole was a hole.
That’s right, exactly.
We would try to go get it. My council to the old signals intelligence guys is, you know what? You may have trouble getting content in the future. There’s other stuff you can do now. There’s so much digital exhaust that you can actually create actionable information without content.
Absolutely. It’s a very ... I want to finish up talking about China and Russia. Where are the challenges from your perspective? There’s an assault on intelligence, our agencies are getting attacked by our own government, or one person in particular in the government. I think while this is going on, China, Russia, other countries are just moving straight ahead in this area.
I would make a distinction between the two. One’s resurgent, the other’s a pretender. Russia’s dealing from fundamentally a position of weakness.
What we see the Russians doing is trying to tear us down. There’s post-truthism.
Right, messing with elections.
It’s all designed to get us down to their level, to distract and weaken us. The Chinese may do that a little bit. They’ve got Confucius centers around the country, which is kind of soft influence.
It’s almost too good for them to do the Putin stuff.
But they are resurgent, or from their point of view, this is restoration. It’s a different kind of challenge. The Russians trying to take us down, the Chinese being a genuine competitor. But competitor, not an enemy.
Right. Therefore, this thing around ZTE ...
A real thing. I get it. You saw, despite what the President said, act of fact-based, you had the nation’s counterintelligence executive answer would you buy? He said, “Oh no.” Would you let government employees use ...? “No.”
No. Right, exactly. No, I don’t think we should make any phones. People are surprised when I say that. No. It makes no sense, it makes no sense. It also takes away from our country’s innovation in this area when the government doesn’t back behind it.
All right, I want to finish up, General Hayden, talking about where you think it’s going from here. You have a hope ... you seem to have a hopeful point of view, although ...
It’s hair on fire every night, it seems like. Where do you imagine it going?
This past weekend, which was the investigation of the investigation, was really troubling. Back to something you said earlier, I never thought I’d see that, and yet we see these things routinely. I think institutions survive, but they will be damaged. Here’s a thought I haven’t shared but it’s really important. We have a president who does not respect norms, so we’ve got institutions pushing back, and one of the great dangers for those institutions is that in pushing back they break their own norms.
They’ll do anything.
Yep. We, my tribe and other tribes, journalism, needs to not be obsessed about the president. There’s other news out there.
Intelligence can’t leak information that should not be made public even if it is in the purpose of pushing back against a norm-busting administration. We need to preserve our norms, hold our ground and ...
Although some people say no. When they had that story that Ronan Farrow had about whether this piece of banking information was somehow lost, the guy leaked because he thought, “I have to do it before ...”
According to the story, and that is a norm-busting behavior.
I don’t think that’s the off-ramp for us.
It’s odd, because I was like, I couldn’t help but see why he would do it. I understood it.
I understand. People come to me and say, “Well, how do you stop leaks?” Oh easy, make people feel like they’re part of a team and they’re listened to.
I agree. That’s what I always say. Someone was telling me ... I get a lot of leads, obviously, not quite as important, and they say, “Why are they leaking to you?” I say, “Because they don’t trust you, and they trust me more than you.” I said, “That’s your problem. If you fix that, they won’t leak to me.”
Which is really interesting. Anyway, this is a fantastic book. You are kind of hopeful, which is interesting. We’ll see. I think we do outlive a lot of people like this. We outlived McCarthy, we outlived all kinds of problems over our history.
Actually, I was on Bill Maher a couple weeks ago and the core guest was John Meacham.
Of course, Andrew Jackson.
He’s bringing his book out ... it’s now No. 1, about how we have weathered storms in the past.
One hundred percent. Our lack of ability to understand our history ... I’m reading the Hamilton book. I saw the musical. It almost got screwed up with the Whiskey Rebellion. There’s so many points.
My guys in Pittsburgh.
Exactly. There’s so many points in history where we don’t realize we were this close and somehow it turned. It’s interesting ... if we make the right decisions. Anyway, it was great talking to you. Thanks for coming on the show.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.