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.
Instead, Gen. Alexander spoke Wednesday at the corporately themed annual security conference called Black Hat, which by tradition runs in Las Vegas just as DefCon does, and a few days prior.
But as the general's speech at Black Hat was about to begin, security guards seized a carton of eggs from someone in the audience, said Finnish security specialist Miko Hypponnen, who witnessed the incident and told his 51,000-plus Twitter followers about it.
"Freedom," one audience member shouted during the general's 45-minute speech.
"We stand for freedom," Gen. Alexander replied.
"Bull----," retorted the heckler, one of several who interrupted the event.
Despite such shows of criticism, the impact of the hacker culture on recruitment by U.S. intelligence agencies shouldn't be overstated, said government transparency advocate Steven Aftergood.
"There is a subculture that values transparency above all else, but I don't see it as a big issue in the intelligence world. There are plenty of 29-year-olds at the CIA, and they're not leaking all over the place," said Mr. Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy.
Even in "the [information technology] world, there are lots of people who are far from identifying with [recent leaks] who were indeed horrified," he said.
Transparency vs. secrecy
Mr. Aftergood believes transparency did have something to do with Mr. Snowden's actions, saying that a lack of transparency in the NSA domestic activities Mr. Snowden first exposed was part of what impelled the computer technician to act.
If the Obama administration had been more forthcoming and less misleading in its early public statements about the NSA surveillance programs, Mr. Snowden might not have acted in the first place, Mr. Aftergood said.
"The gap between what he knew and what the public was being told was just too wide," he said, adding that Mr. Snowden "has prompted a far-reaching and very important public debate."
Mr. Hayden, a principal of the Chertoff Group security consultancy firm, holds a different view.
It is "really important that the government respond well to this particular abuse," he said of the Snowden and Manning cases.
Manning, an Army intelligence specialist, was convicted Tuesday of leaking more than 700,000 classified documents to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks. Mr. Snowden was granted asylum Thursday in Russia after he revealed details about the NSA's top-secret information-gathering programs in June.
Mr. Hayden said he does not endorse some forms of exemplary punishment, "what the French call 'for the encouragement of others.'"
But if hackers "have this attachment to transparency, perhaps the intelligence community is not where they should be," he said, adding that the government needs to use the Snowden case to show that it is "serious."
The former director of both the NSA and CIA said it is "very appropriate" for the U.S. government to pursue Mr. Snowden relentlessly and make his fate an issue in its bilateral relations with any nation that harbors him.
"We need to recruit from this culture," he said. "Members of this culture, when they embrace government service with its necessary requirements of secrecy, need to be shown the government is quite serious about those necessary requirements."
One way to think about it is that "secrecy is to governments as privacy is to individuals," Mr. Hayden said. "There are some things governments need to keep secret, just like there are things an individual needs to keep private. And both can be abused."
The conflict between secrecy and transparency has played out in recent weeks on billboards in the Washington region.
Last month, in the wake of high-profile prosecutions of intelligence officials for leaks to news organizations, CIA Director John O. Brennan launched a campaign to get agency employees to "Honor the Oath."
In a memo obtained by The Associated Press, Mr. Brennan told the CIA workforce that the campaign aims to "reinforce our corporate culture of secrecy" through education and training.
Last week, three billboards appeared at the Pentagon Metro station, paid for by a group calling itself the Oath-keepers.
"Snowden Honored His Oath. Honor Yours! Stop Big Brother! Expose unconstitutional activities!" reads one sign that portrays Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper as "Big Brother," Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano as "Big Sis" and Mr. Brennan as "Comrade Brennan."
"I was going to take a picture of it," Mr. Hayden said, but he was worried that someone might see him do so.
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