Michael Hayden: Blame Intel Agencies, Not White House, For Getting Iraq Wrong The former NSA chief said the intelligence agencies were convinced that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Hayden discusses his role in an interview with NPR's Robert Siegel.
NPR logo

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

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/467692822/467704653" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Michael Hayden: Blame Intel Agencies, Not White House, For Getting Iraq Wrong

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

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/467692822/467704653" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • 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.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.