STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
There was a time when spies would retire and fade away, staying as quiet as they were when they were on duty. Now they go on cable TV. They write op-eds. They're on Twitter, criticizing the president quite often, and they also speak with NPR's Greg Myre.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: When Michael Hayden ran the CIA and the NSA, his public comments were largely confined to congressional testimony. Now that he's retired...
MICHAEL HAYDEN: I'm on Twitter. All right? And I'm on CNN.
MYRE: And he was the featured guest as dozens of former national security officials and several current ones spoke at a recent conference on threats facing the U.S. A handful of journalists were also invited to the event on Sea Island, Ga., and Hayden and his colleagues were OK with that.
JOHN SIPHER: Used to be when you retired from the Clandestine Service in the CIA, you had to stay under your previous cover.
MYRE: That's John Sipher. He has the perfect name for a spy, and that's exactly what he was for nearly 30 years at the CIA.
SIPHER: In recent years, retirees like myself have been able to what we call roll back cover and be able to talk about some of the things we did.
MYRE: The conference was organized by The Cipher Brief, which isn't named after John Sipher, though he writes for the online publication. It features analyses from former spies like Frank Archibald, speaking in this panel discussion about rebuilding fractured Muslim countries.
FRANK ARCHIBALD: You have to give people security, you have to give them justice. And you have to give them some sense of an economy that my children will do better than I will.
MYRE: Archibald sounds more like an aid worker than head of the CIA's Clandestine Service, his final job before retirement in 2015. Suzanne Kelly, a former reporter, created The Cipher Brief three years ago.
SUZANNE KELLY: What we're really trying to do, and I think what we've done, is change the culture of agencies that have been told their entire - you know, people who have been told their entire careers, don't talk to the media, the media are bad.
MYRE: Michael Hayden's view began to change in 2013 when NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the extent of eavesdropping programs that remain controversial. Hayden says the Agency worked with the White House, Congress and the courts, but it didn't communicate with the public until it was forced to. He says that was a mistake.
HAYDEN: And hence, you see an awful lot of folks like me within the bounds of classification trying to describe to the broader public what it is we do and why so as to get their understanding and, if not their enthusiastic approval, at least their acceptance.
MYRE: President Trump has questioned the intelligence agencies and their findings regarding Russia's meddling in the 2016 election. As some retirees fire back, it raises questions about their long tradition of neutrality. Ex-CIA chief John Brennan has tweeted just over 20 times yet he's amassed more than 200,000 followers by lambasting the president. Here's a voiceover of a recent one.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Reading tweet) When the full extent of your venality, moral turpitude and political corruption becomes known, you will take your rightful place as a disgraced demagogue in the dustbin of history.
MYRE: John Sipher began speaking out last year after the Russia dossier compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele became public.
SIPHER: Since I had served in Russia and I was aware of Mr. Steele and aware of how the Russian intelligence services worked, a number of people reached out to ask questions.
MYRE: A CIA spokesman stresses that no employee, active or retired, can divulge classified information. And anything they write must be approved in advance by the Agency. But in a changing media landscape, it's complicated.
SIPHER: How do you go on television? And the answer was sort of a joking, like, they don't really have a process. We assume that you sort of understand where the line is.
MYRE: That line is moving, but there's still a lot that goes unsaid. Greg Myre, NPR News, Sea Island, Ga.
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