Michael Hayden: Voice of the Fabulist

March 12, 2016–Among the chorus of voices lifted in defense of the excesses of our intelligence agencies, when these came under the scrutiny of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was that of former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director Michael V. Hayden. The Senate committee report pictured Hayden as a defender of torture. Readers of this space may remember warnings against listening to Mr. Hayden that were included in posts in the wake of the Senate committee (SSCI) report. Hayden is an experienced speaker and trained briefer, smooth and unctuous. He is superficially credible, which is what makes him dangerous. Mr. Hayden is out there now, a retired Air Force general with a memoir to peddle. It’s high time to revisit the question of his believability.

A former director of both the CIA and the NSA–at the very moment it entered into the present scheme of dragnet eavesdropping–not to mention deputy to the Director of National Intelligence, Mr. Hayden had a finger in every pie. He slides by means of an m.o. where he typically asserts that he understands (this extreme view) as well as that (extreme view) covering the spectrum, and then proceeds to obfuscate.

The technique was on view last night in a lecture series sponsored by the blog “Lawfare” with the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. In that talk Michael Hayden deplored complaints against CIA for its torture of prisoners in black sites as a violation–a violation by citizens of CIA’s compact with the American people. What is that? Hayden explained that you have to check off boxes before sending an officer into the breach. Does the president approve the operation? Check. Does the attorney general? Check. How ’bout the CIA director? Yep. Does the operation have the agency’s sacraments? Uh huh. OK. It’s within the compact.

Sound good? It’s malarkey. First off, where was the vote–even the national conversation–where the “American people” agreed to that schema? It didn’t happen. Long ago George Tenet, Hayden’s predecessor several times removed, saw the need for a new national consensus on U.S. intelligence work after the Cold War, but Tenet dropped that project half way through and the quest was never resumed. There is no compact.

Second, on Hayden’s checklist there is exactly one elected official, the president. By definition the others, especially the CIA director and his minions, cannot be approval authorities for the compact. As for the president, George W. Bush–and the CIA–did their best to hide both black sites and torture, as well as the “legal” memoranda that were supposed to have justified this mess.

Insofar as torture is concerned the reality is that it is not certain the president did agree. Hayden himself admits there was much more difference between the first Bush term and Bush 2 than between Bush and Obama. Well, George W. in Bush 2 prohibited the torture (and indeed Obama followed suit). During Bush 1 George Tenet, the CIA director at the time, stopped the torture program–at least twice–because he was not sure the president approved it. Dick Cheney told the CIA President Bush approved, but Cheney also blocked every CIA effort to approach the president directly. As Hayden knows perfectly well, W.’s own assertion that he was briefed and did approve, has been disputed elsewhere. The difference between Bush 1 and Bush 2 is the leak of the black sites and CIA misdeeds, plus the increased distance from 9/11. To put it differently, permission, if there was that, went off the table the moment the public learned of the excesses. That sounds like a very different understanding of the “compact.”

Third, the attorney general (and here Hayden refers to John Ashcroft and then Alberto Gonzales–he hates Eric Holder, who is, apparently, a “true believer” against torture) is a weak reed on which to hang approval authority for a “compact.” By Mr. Hayden’s standard Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy’s knowledge of CIA plans to assassinate Fidel Castro brought them within a compact with the American people. Not likely.

(In the narrower sense, though he did not actually say so, no doubt Hayden was referring to the so-called “legal memoranda” compiled by the Office of Legal Counsel of the Department of Justice as approving of CIA torture. Not only have those memoranda collapsed, on their face, as legal underpinnings, they were given excessive importance in the first place. Legal memoranda are not laws or court decisions, and they do not substitute for law. Again, no “compact.”)

Both in speech and in his book Mr. Hayden refers to poll numbers that appear to accept the act of torture. Polls do not create a “compact.” Public opinion is notoriously fickle–and I’m sure if you could ask those CIA officers who carefully avoided the taint of these projects their reasons why, you would hear back that they knew opinion would change later and they’d be hung out to dry.

Which is exactly what’s happening to Mr. Hayden, Jose Rodriguez, and other CIA stalwarts of the interrogation programs. It’s their desperation showing. Unlike poll numbers and phony “compacts,” torture is a criminal offense under U.S. and international law, treaty law and the law of war, and associated activities are constitutional violations. There’s a reason why the psychologists the CIA hired to install its interrogation techniques insisted on coverage of legal fees for 20 years afterwards.

In various places Hayden has also made a point of trying to turn around the language. In particular in speaking of the SSCI, the former CIA director talks of the committee attempting to configure a “they say/we say” dynamic. Hayden connects the use  of the word “torture”–and others associated with the reality of what happened–with the supposedly false approach. Think about that for a minute–the CIA, an agency that specializes in deception (among its other skills), crafts a series of euphemisms (“enhanced interrogation techniques,” “high value detainees,” and so on), and then complains the public is out of line for using conventional vocabulary to discuss the issue rather than CIA’s deliberately contrived substitutes.

Tell me who is trying to impose the dynamic on this debate?

You see why you need to deal with Hayden’s logic, and his language, carefully.

In a few days I’ll have more to say about Hayden’s manipulation of secrecy and freedom-of-information while he was CIA director.

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3 Responses to Michael Hayden: Voice of the Fabulist

  1. William Gak says:

    Thanks so much for the forum. Really thank you! Much obliged.

  2. Bella says:

    We could’ve done with that insight early on.

  3. Phillip Bauer says:

    Interesting. Are you planning to review Hayden’s memoir on your blog? I’d be interested in your take.

    [EDITOR: It’s a good idea. Let me get to the Family Jewels story (which is about Hayden’s memoir) first, then think on a braoder review. Stay tuned.]

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