The Wire interviews General Michael Hayden

On Oct. 25, alongside journalists from six collegiate newspapers, the Wire participated in a roundtable interview with former National Security Agency  (NSA) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Michael Hayden.  The interview, which was conducted in Washington D.C, focused on government surveillance.

Hayden and the NSA have both been major media subjects since mid-June, when government contractor Edward Snowden illegally revealed classified information about government surveillance to political blogger Glenn Greenwald. Snowden disclosed that the NSA was collecting metadata on every phone call made in the United States and intercepting e-mail exchanges in which one party was based outside the United States. Metadata is not a recording of the phone conversation, but a record of where the call was made from, what phone was being called, and how long the call took place.

This does not mean that the government is listening to every phone call and reading every e-mail. Doing so would be illegal under the 4th Amendment, and no evidence has emerged to show the NSA is violating the law. According to the Supreme Court’s 1979 decision in Smith v. Maryland, metadata is not private and can be collected by the government without a warrant. Intercepting foreign e-mails also does not require a warrant if the names of American citizens are redacted.

Although these practices are legal, privacy advocates staunchly oppose them. On Oct. 26, thousands of Americans protested the surveillance measures at the Stop Watching Me rally in Washington D.C. Though a minority of Americans, opponents of the NSA have generated much media attention.

Michael Hayden, who directed the NSA from 1999 until 2005, conducted a ninety minute interview to thirteen student journalists to address government surveillance and the recent media controversy surrounding the NSA. Hayden began by placing the surveillance programs in a historical context, saying “American history has separated foreign policy and espionage from domestic law enforcement. In the modern world, those distinctions don’t matter.” Hayden argued that since nobody complained during the Cold War if the government intercepted communications within the Soviet Union, intercepting e-mails involving a foreign party should be acceptable.

450,000 private contractors have a security clearance that allows them to view top secret government information. Hayden does not believe this poses an increased security risk compared to full-time government employees, characterizing many of the contractors as “people who will bump into secret stuff on the job.” This description applies to the cafeteria workers, janitors, fire fighters, and all the other private employees who work in the buildings of federal intelligence agencies.

Despite his optimism about private contractors, Hayden criticized the process for granting security clearances. “Basically, we go to their houses and talk to their neighbors,” he said, “But in the modern world, people don’t live in a neighborhood. They live at work and they live digitally.”

Ultimately, Hayden believed the security measures were necessary to combat international terrorism. He explained that while Al-Qaeda no longer had the capability to stage a large-scale attack like September 11, they could easily kill dozens of Americans using car bombs or by attacking public places with armed gunmen.

Despite defending the NSA, Hayden recognized that surveillance could erode American values, saying “the danger is that projects which are legal and acceptable as individuals are a problem as a whole.” To prevent this, Hayden argued the NSA should have more transparency, and allow Americans to decide what limits they want for national security.

What bothered Hayden the most was how contradictory public attitudes are. He lamented how people criticize surveillance yet were outraged that the FBI hadn’t foiled the Boston marathon bombing, whose perpetrators were protected from warrantless surveillance of American citizens.

Hayden was remarkably candid throughout the interview. He referred to Edward Snowden as a “troubled young man who, looking at historical evidence about what happens to defectors, will probably end up depressed (and) alcoholic… .” Hayden was unapologetic about the NSA’s practice of intercepting communications from America’s allies. He compared the situation to losing a schoolyard fight to an older child, saying that “if you think someone is stealing your president’s high level secrets, stop crying, be a man, and defend yourself.”

The Wire joined journalists from the Williams Record, Harvard Political Review, Yale Daily News, Columbia Daily Spectator, the Tower (Catholic University),  and the Diamondback (Maryland University) in the interview. The Wire would like to thank Dennis Helms for inviting us to participate, as well as Williams Record Managing Editor Megan Bantle for trip organization and transportation.