When retired Air Force Gen. Michael V. Hayden headed the CIA, one question vexed him so much that he set up a special working group of his private-sector advisory board to help him answer it: “Will America be able to conduct espionage in the future, inside a political culture that every day demands more and more transparency in every facet of national life?”
Mr. Hayden said the working group, headed by former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, “came back with the answer, more or less: ‘We’re not sure.’”
In an interview, Mr. Hayden discussed how developing technology, changing cultural norms and the ever-increasing political demand for transparency are making it harder for U.S. agencies to recruit spies and run secret operations.
These challenges have been dramatized recently by the leak cases against Bradley Manning, 25, and Edward Snowden, 30, who used their technical skills to steal secrets in bulk.
Young people who possess the technical skills that agencies need increasingly have what Mr. Hayden calls “a romantic, absolute attachment to transparency; [a belief] that secrecy in any form is wrong.”
The products of this hacker culture, even in the intelligence world, are often the pathfinders and gatekeepers of the wired world.
Mr. Snowden was one of them — a high school dropout with computer skills who has said he got a job with the National Security Agency specifically to expose what he calls unconstitutional and illegal programs that are sweeping up vast amounts of data about Americans’ telephone calls and Internet habits.
The hackers and the feds
NSA Director Army Gen. Keith B. Alexander last year gave the keynote address at DefCon, the annual computer security conference that perhaps best expresses the anarchic, nonconformist spirit of the hacker community. The eavesdropping agency even had a recruiting booth at the event, where it distributed tchotchkes and glossy brochures.
Gen. Alexander “needs the skills that community has,” said Mr. Hayden, who led the NSA before becoming the first deputy director of national intelligence and later CIA director. “But the entire younger generation, particularly of this community, has a different view of the balance between transparency and secrecy.”
“This is a long-term issue for” U.S. intelligence agencies, he said.
The hacker culture’s view of transparency is perhaps summed up best by the Internet slogan “Information wants to be free.”
It has led to some tension in the blossoming love affair between hackers and “the feds” — as hackers call the U.S. security and intelligence agencies that have become constant presences at computer security conferences.
This year, DefCon founder Jeff Moss asked the feds — Gen. Alexander included — to stay away from the event.
“We need some time apart,” Mr. Moss said in a widely noticed blog post last month.