Gen. (ret.) Hayden: U.S. Intelligence & The ‘High Noon’ Scenario

Michael Hayden: American Intelligence and the ‘High Noon’ Scenario


The hardworking folks at the NSA surely must feel a little like Marshall Will Kane.


The hardworking folks at the NSA surely must feel a little like Marshall Will Kane.

By Michael Hayden           

 While I was at the CIA, I grew concerned over America’s ability to keep  secrets. I was so concerned that I asked the agency’s civilian advisory  board to address the question.
Could American espionage survive inside a broader political culture  that every day demands more transparency and more public accountability  from every aspect of national life?
Their answer wasn’t comforting. They weren’t sure.
Then I was focused on domestic transparency: What level of openness  with the American people would sustain their confidence in what we were  doing? I had no thought of international transparency as some sort of  prerequisite, but today we find ourselves dangerously close to that  prospect.
Responding to the effects of Edward Snowden’s serial exposures of the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs, President Obama  admitted to Europeans last month that there were “questions in terms of  whether we’re tipping over into being too intrusive with respect to the . . . interactions of other governments.” The president added that, “We  are consulting with other countries in this process and finding out from them what are their areas of specific concern.”
In other words, we are asking other countries what aspects of our espionage make them uncomfortable.
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto claims to have secured a  commitment from a personal conversation with President Obama that  “corresponding sanctions” would be applied if press accounts proved  true. And now the government of German Chancellor Angela Merkel feels  fully entitled to ask (and have answered) the Watergate question: “What  did the president know and when did he know it?”
It is bad politics and bad policy for good friends to put their  partners in politically impossible situations, and recent reports of  aggressive American espionage have done just that.
It matters little that the reports may or may not be true or that  foreign leaders may or may not have already suspected these activities.  The issue now is that seemingly plausible accounts are in the public  domain, and people are angry.
To be sure, there is some theater involved here. Public allegations  of espionage require “victims” to be publicly outraged. But there also  are legitimate concerns about privacy, and even theater can force  reduced cooperation with the U.S. on a variety of issues.
And so the president is clearly committed to a “rebalancing.” He has  teed this up by reminding audiences that “just because we can do  something doesn’t mean we should do it,” and the coming report from his  “outside experts” panel, due by year’s end, will give him  recommendations (and political cover) for making some moves.
Fair enough. I had my share of “political guidance” while at the NSA, too. It’s not new.
But the administration needs to be careful not to overachieve.
Recall in 2008 how candidate Obama was a near-obsessive user of his  BlackBerry and once elected said that, “They’re going to have to pry it  out of my hands,” much to the alarm of his security staff.
Eventually the president kept his BlackBerry, but his email list was  confined to a small group of family and friends and the device itself  got some security enhancements.
Picture the backdrop of this episode. The most powerful man in the  most powerful country on earth was warned that his communications were  vulnerable to intercept by multiple foreign intelligence services in his own national capital. No moral offense, no political pressures, no  public posturing. In fact, no attempt was made to portray this as  anything other than the way things are.
Things are still that way. States conduct espionage against one another. Including us.
Going forward we need to remember how U.S. intelligence suffered a  similar crisis of conscience in the 1990s when the CIA’s  human-intelligence (HUMINT) collectors were told to stand down and not  talk to “bad” people, a deficit from which the agency had to recover  after 9/11. We can create a similar effect now if we tell  signals-intelligence (SIGINT) collectors in the NSA that they cannot  listen to any “good” people.
There is another important concern. It has to do with Gary Cooper.
In the iconic last scene of the Western “High Noon,” Marshall Will  Kane (Cooper) is surrounded by townsfolk crowding one another to  congratulate him for killing Frank Miller and his murderous henchmen.  These are the same townsfolk who a few hours earlier had not only  refused to help Kane, but actually accused him of causing Miller’s  vengeful descent on them.
I wonder how many folks at NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Md. (and  actually throughout this country’s intelligence community), might want  to stream the 1952 classic; they surely must feel a little like Will  Kane.
American intelligence works to meet the needs and follows the lead of American policy makers. There is actually a formal framework for  national intelligence priorities agreed upon regularly at the National  Security Council level.
When policy makers validate a need to better understand, say, the  level of corruption in a particular state or the intentions of a  friendly but balky ally, what is it they think they are asking the  intelligence community to do?
And when they read a responsive, incisive report, where do they think it came from?
There’s a real danger here. The American signals-intelligence  community is being battered at home from extreme left and extreme right, and it’s being battered from abroad for just being extremely good.
Beyond receiving new policy guidance, I fear that community will now  take new blows and be conveniently labeled by some as “excessive” or  “unconstrained” or “out of control.”
At the end of “High Noon,” Gary Cooper throws his marshall’s badge  into the dust, stares his way through the crowd, joins Grace Kelly in a  buckboard and drives off in disgust. Let’s hope something similar  doesn’t happen with our intelligence professionals.

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