- - Thursday, August 7, 2014


For folks like me, a highlight of summer is the annual Security Forum put on the by the Aspen Institute. This year was no exception as current and former officials, academics, journalists and policy wonks of various types gathered for three days of panels, interviews and countless sidebar conversations.

Despite the delightful venue, there was an underlying, somber theme in the discussions that could go by the name of “security fatigue,” the reluctance of the American public, much of its political leadership and a significant fraction of the commentariat to support a more active American response to the multiple crises facing the world today.

It’s not surprising that a group with the demographics of the Aspen crowd saw this as a concerning, if not a downright dangerous, development.

Within this overall “security fatigue,” there also seems to be an identifiable “intelligence fatigue,” as well.

July was certainly a helluva month for American intelligence. It began with several National Security Agency folks testifying to a committee. But this wasn’t current NSAers talking to the House or Senate intelligence panels. It was two disgruntled, former NSA seniors testifying to the German Bundestag’s NSA Inquiry Commission.

One of them, Bill Binney, asserted that, “They [NSA] want to have information about everything. This is really a totalitarian approach. The goal is control of people.”

The other, Thomas Drake, after claiming that NSA wanted to punish Germany for harboring the 9-11 hijackers, added that NSA’s “monitoring regime has grown into a system that is strangling the world.”

This wasn’t the first time that Mr. Binney and Mr. Drake have exhibited active imaginations.

Later in the month CIA Director John Brennan had to apologize for CIA agents improperly accessing computers used by Democratic Senate staffers compiling a report on the Agency’s detention program. This was a limited (but ill-advised) search of CIA machines being used by the staffers to learn how the staffers had obtained a document that CIA had not given them. It quickly led, however, to broad charges by the likes of Sen. Mark Udall, Colorado Democrat, that “the CIA unconstitutionally spied on Congress” and leads in The New York Times editorial page about “The CIA’s Reckless Breach of Trust.”

By the way, how did Senate staffers get that document?

And then there is the Senate Democrats’ report itself whose contents leaked throughout the month with charges that CIA detentions and interrogations didn’t work, that the program was more widespread and abusive than previously reported, and that the agency lied to everyone about it.

(I’m one of a very small group of former CIA seniors who have been allowed to see a summary of the report. As a condition of my review I had to agree not to discuss the contents of the now declassified report, CIA response and SSCI Republican rebuttal until the Senate report is released. So more on this, lots more, later.)

Then, as July turned to August, the intelligence community finished redacting the Senate Democrats’ report, apparently blacking out about 15 percent of the document to protect sources, methods and identities (many of the cuts were said to be only footnotes). Even though the edits were approved by the White House, Democratic Senators shot back. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, refused to accept the changes while others like a spokesman for Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, lashed out at “redactions meant to spare political embarrassment.”

On the same day as the report’s delivery to the Hill, President Obama — while warning people not to be too sanctimonious given the post 9-11 world — declared that, “We tortured some folks.”

Leave aside the vague “some folks” reference that seems to suggest that some hapless Rotarians or other innocents were mistreated, or the fact that three of the last four Attorneys General refused to characterize this as torture. The president’s seemingly casual words put him on the side of the Agency’s (now his Agency’s) harshest critics.

Mr. Brennan had a town meeting with his workforce the day before to give fair warning of the tsunami about to hit. Surely the director’s heavy message would have caused some of the officers in the “bubble” to reflect on what might await them for the things they are doing now. After all, detentions and interrogations once constituted America’s programs, not just the CIA’s. Like everything going on today, they had been authorized by the president, declared lawful by the Department of Justice and briefed to the Hill.

The American government today conducts targeted killings outside of internationally recognized theaters of conflict against folks believed to be terrorists. I support that.

But few other governments in the world do. And global public opinion is swinging hard against it. In mid-July, USA Today reported that in 37 of 44 countries polled, at least half of the respondents opposed the strikes. In the U.S., approval has dropped from 61 to 52 percent over the past year.

Several prominent members of Congress have questioned their lawfulness? What happens if one of them is elected President? It happens.

Like I said, it was a helluva month.

Part of this could well be the “security fatigue” so often referenced at Aspen. And part of the intelligence community’s peculiar issues could be chalked up to charges about excess — from metadata collection to interrogations to taking terrorists off the battlefield.

But all this may be have more to do with success than with excess. We feel safer. Probably more safe than we should.

And, as I’ve said in other fora, there has been a broad pattern in popular (or at least elite) views of American intelligence. We criticize intelligence for not doing enough when we feel in danger. And we criticize intelligence for doing too much when it has made us feel safe again.

The last month offers good evidence as to where we are in that cycle.

Gen. Michael Hayden is a former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency. He can be reached at [email protected]

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