Gen. Michael Hayden’s interview on spying

Gen. Hayden, the former head of both the NSA and CIA (one after the other, not at the same time), gave an interview about the spying on and by the United States. I’d be interested to know the reactions of readers to the interview.

Hat tip: Walter Russell Mead



  1. I enjoyed Hayden’s interview, thanks for linking to it, Scott!

    It’s more enlightening about what China, et al., are doing than about the US (except by contrast). Perhaps we’d need some interviews with the security chiefs of other countries to find out useful details about the US dynamics.

    I’d say the opposite about Snowden who only exposes the US and its closest allies. Snowden may know relatively little about China, Russia, etc. to which he is escaping. It seems like he has stolen a lot of detailed information, but what has been released to the public has mostly seemed like a confirmation of what was already believed or suspected (e.g. as authorized by the Patriot Act). So, Snowden basically provided more certainty and started conversations, which is useful, but the real damage may be in the details which we still do not know. But it’s interesting that Hayden seems to agree with Snowden’s portrayal of himself as earnestly dedicated to transparency rather than harming the US. That gives me some hope.

    Regarding PRISM, et al., as I understand it, the government is basically monitoring metadata (parties involved, location, duration, etc.) without a warrant and mining it for patterns. They also store metadata and data (the content of conversations) long term, which means that once they get a warrant for X’s data from FISA, they can look at X’s data and the data of everyone X has contacted in the past. It’s like time-shifting an investigation beyond what Google, et al. may save of their own accord. Of course, they don’t even need a warrant for foreign conversations.

    My problem is that everything is vague by design. Have you read some of the news reports on hacks? They are usually so vague as to be meaningless and often include subtle inaccuracies making me wonder if they even know what they are talking about.

    For example, Hayden’s statement about “attacks that destroyed thousands of Saudi Aramco computers” is unlikely, unless we use a weak definition for “destroyed”. Maybe it interfered with their work, or some data was deleted by the virus, it’s not at all clear. Maybe they had backups. Something happened that caused them to take their computers offline, that’s all we know.

    Something like Stuxnet, on the other hand, is an entirely different kind of animal in how it specifically targeted programmable logic controllers in the embargoed Siemens equipment used in Iran’s nuclear program in order to corrupt their physical performance. It is a remarkable feat and it is even more remarkable how much the public knows about it (not everything, but a lot).

    Iranian DoS (denial of service) attacks against American banks don’t seem that insurmountable to me, though I’m not in the thick of it. I think the federal government may have a role in setting standards, but that is mild compared to its role in our physical defense.

    Which brings me to Hayden comparing Chinese espionage to “unrestricted submarine warfare”. Until it actually costs lives, the only thing really being compared in his sentence is the word “unrestricted”.

    I don’t really doubt that Hayden is basically telling the truth (and sharing interesting, albeit broad, tidbits), but I’m skeptical of drawing policy conclusions from the information the public is given.

  2. That seems like a good way to look at it, Kevin. I agree that it’s important to make distinctions between different kinds of attacks. I had never thought about the vagaries in the descriptions of hacking attacks, which as you said don’t help us think clearly about a response.

    I’m glad that you enjoyed the interview!

  3. A couple more recent items:

    (1) Individual abuse and semantic games: NSA broke privacy rules thousands of times per year, audit finds

    (2) Application beyond national security: IRS gets help from DEA and NSA to collect data

    The Internal Revenue Service reportedly received incriminating information on US citizens from the Drug Enforcement Agency, with the assistance of the National Security Agency, before concealing the paper trail from defendants.

    Details of a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) program that provides tips to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and then advises them to “recreate the investigative trail” were published in a manual used by IRS agents for two years, Reuters revealed.

    The basic problem is assuming the morality of every act or actor of government. With a more massive corpus of laws, people are more subject to the whims of the executive branch’s scrutiny.

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