March 15, 2016–Former top spook Michael V. Hayden loves operations. Pushing pieces around the board, making the game go his way–those are the things for which he wakes up in the morning. That’s the meaning hidden in the title of his recent memoir Playing to the Edge. In this space a few days ago (“Michael Hayden: Voice of the Fabulist, March 12, 2016) I covered Hayden’s recent appearance at the “Lawfare” forum of Stanford University. One of the questions he fielded there was which organization–Hayden had headed both the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)–he had better liked being the director of. Having already said, in a different context, that NSA probably accounts for 60 percent or more of the President’s Daily Brief–and the CIA for much less than the rest–the general came back and said he preferred leading the CIA. He ticked his head. “Covert operations,” he said.
I’ve heard elsewhere–in more than one place–that Mr. Hayden takes more delight in the intricacies of minute spy activities than whichever other senior officer my commentator was familiar with. CIA lawyer John Rizzo writes, “Mike Hayden loved being a spymaster, by which I mean he reveled in conceiving and running covert operations involving real people and back-alley intrigue.” In fact General Hayden’s Big Idea when he took the helm at CIA was revamping the agency’s organization so as to increase the “operational tempo.” Even CIA’s historians were supposed to get involved. Operational tempo did increase–but how much of that was due to the latest moving of deck chairs and ho much to Langley’s increasing reliance on drone attacks remains an open question.
In his memoir the general recounts asking a civilian advisory board whether the United States will be able to continue espionage into a future where every day the demands increase for transparency and public accountability. He reports the board had its doubts. “Really important answer,” Hayden notes (p. 422).
What do you do to avoid that eventuality? You manipulate the public’s knowledge. Here’s a story, and it’s about spies, and it really happened:
When General Hayden came to Langley the hottest issue on CIA secrecy was the continuing effort to shield the “President’s Daily Brief” (PDB), reports that constantly update the chief executive. The PDBs had been recently controversial in the case of 9/11, where it developed that CIA had warned of an imminent threat. Elsewhere CIA had observed that terrorists might use airplanes as weapons. The Bush White House tried but failed to keep that information from reaching the commission investigating the 9/11 attacks and the public. The CIA asserted these PDBs were decision documents and eligible for special secrecy protection.
Dr. Larry Berman, a University of California history professor, asked for some of these PDBs to be released for his research, documents so old their secrecy was not credible. The CIA turned Berman down. In conjunction with the National Security Archive he sued for the papers’ release. The PDBs were not protected either by precedent or by nature–Berman and Archive could show that numerous PDBs and predecessor reports (the documents had another name in the Kennedy years) had long since been declassified, and that no claim had ever been made that releasing them revealed intelligence sources and methods or that they were exempt by virtue of presidential privilege.
While Berman lost at the U.S. district court level, his appeal was on its way to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit when Michael Hayden took over the CIA. As per Hayden’s question to his advisory board, it appeared there were reasons to expect the same societal forces pushing the effort to open the PDBs might sharpen across the board.
The general’s problem was to be open and shut at the same time.
Now, the CIA also had another ongoing secrecy appeal on its plate. That was the matter of the “Family Jewels,” a notorious compilation document ordered up by CIA director James R. Schlesinger in the early 1970s to discover what domestic abuses the agency had previously engaged in. Revelation of some of the ops that figured in that report had led to the “Year of Intelligence” in 1975, when the CIA had had to endure multiple major outside investigations. Even though its contents were picked through by all those inquiries, the CIA had forever kept secret the document itself. Numerous Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for it had all been rejected. When Hayden arrived at Langley the National Security Archive had been pursuing an FOIA on the Family Jewels since 1992. Archive director Thomas Blanton had been in contact with CIA declassification officials encouraging them to release the material. It would be a good place to start, Blanton argued, if the agency wanted to turn the public dialogue away from torture.
Suddenly Blanton began to hear good things. Senior agency officials told him he’d be happy with an upcoming speech–General Hayden was scheduled to address the Society for the Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR), the major professional association of diplomatic historians. Hayden duly appeared on June 21, 2007. He called himself “a lifelong student of history.” He went on to declare that “CIA recognizes the real benefits that flow from greater public understanding of our work and mission,” extolled a “very successful” FOIA program, and went on to assert that “we have completed our declassification review and are preparing to release most of the so-called Family Jewels.”
At the Archive we were overwhelmed, in the short term, with the impact of all this. The general seemed to be turning over a new leaf, perhaps a true age of openness was dawning. Media excitement built through the weekend. The CIA actually released the Family Jewels on the Monday, June 25, when a CIA car pulled up in front of the Gelman Library building of George Washington University, where the Archive offices are located. Television trucks were pulled up all along the street and Langley’s minions no doubt feared the consequences of their pictures appearing in the press. They called upstairs for Mr. Blanton and an assistant to come and retrieve the papers. Much has been done with that declassified document since.
But the Family Jewels were only the MacGuffin in all this. I did not realize it at the time but General Hayden now confirms it in his memoir. “I decided to centralize declassification review at the corporate level,” he writes (p. 121). That meant the agency’s Publications Review Board, a zealous and paranoid collection of the most antediluvian sort, whose antics I have documented in my book The Family Jewels. Releasing the document of that name marked not the beginning of openness but its end–or at least Michael Hayden’s play to the edge.
I was at the SHAFR luncheon where Hayden spoke. I ought to have realized at the time. There were two giveaways–during the questions and answers, several diplomatic historians raised the question of the PDBs. Far from talking openness, he spoke of desire for openness but General Hayden wanted “space” for decisionmakers and also alluded to the spurious sources and methods argument, which those of us who had ever seen the already-declassified PDBs knew to be so much hot air.
The other giveaway was that CIA took the occasion of the SHAFR luncheon to roll out a new umbrella unit, “Information Management Services,” that combined the Review Board, which has the power of (and indeed is preoccupied with) suppression of anything written by a CIA employee, the Historical Review Program (which had done some declassification work in the past), and the agency’s FOIA and privacy office. An official of this new unit actually drew me aside at the luncheon, reminded me of a particular declassification request I had filed, which apparently he had worked on, and asked why “we” (the public) kept making requests like that. Managing information meant keeping it away from the public.
Hayden told us, “I firmly believe this approach will improve CIA’s standing with key partners inside and outside government, including people like you.” The CIA’s declassification process slowed down considerably in the wake of that episode. General Hayden personally participated in this op.
A few months later the Circuit Court ruled that CIA could, indeed, keep their PDBs secret for the moment, but it threw out the “sources and methods” bugaboo, telling the agency it would have to consider the true secrecy value of the various reports. That is what led to the event last September at the Johnson Library, where the CIA made a show of releasing thousands of PDB documents. Note the additional 8-year delay in opening this material. It’s also worth noting that in both the Family Jewels and PDB cases the agency speaks as if it had itself thought up the idea of releasing these documents, rather than being impelled by the public.