- - Wednesday, March 16, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

PLAYING TO THE EDGE: AMERICAN INTELLIGENCE IN THE AGE OF TERROR

By Gen. Michael V. Hayden

Penguin Press, $30, 448 pages

The image of the Central Intelligence Agency perhaps best known to the public is the shield in the marble entry concourse of the Original Headquarters Building, which features a quotation from St. John: “And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”

But up a stairway off to the left is another quotation, on a stylized mural of Lady Liberty, “We are the Nation’s first line of defense. We accomplish what others cannot accomplish and go where others cannot go.”

Such was the challenge accepted by Gen. Michael Hayden during a tumultuous decade in the heart of the intelligence community, first as director of the National Security Agency (NSA), then principal deputy director of National Intelligence, and finally, director of the CIA.

Gen. Hayden’s account is both inspiring and frustrating. Inspiring, because he depicts a dedicated band of men and women determined to devise programs to protect the American public from terrorist attacks both at home and abroad.

But also frustrating, chiefly because of the members of Congress who disavowed programs they had previously approved once they were criticized by a reckless media that valued headlines more than protecting sensitive national security measures.

The most striking account in Gen. Hayden’s details-rich book concerns hyper-secret intercepts of suspected terrorist communications from abroad that passed through the United States. By law, the NSA is prohibited from targeting U.S. citizens for such cover. Stellarwind, as the program was called, was “easily the agency’s edgiest undertaking in its history,” as Gen. Hayden writes. It covered international calls, entering or leaving the United States, but only when the NSA “had probable cause that it was affiliated with al Qaeda.” One or both ends of covered calls was always foreign.

Given the sensitivity of the program, Gen. Hayden trod carefully. In addition to approval by President George W. Bush, the NSA also relied on two decisions by the Foreign Intelligence Security Act court that “we take it as a given that the president has inherent constitutional authority to conduct electronic surveillance without a warrant for intelligence purposes.” And a presiding judge of the FSIA Court, Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, would specifically approve Stellarwind.

Nonetheless, the NSA was cautious when such intercepts proved to be “to, from or about an American.” The NSA was permitted to collect and report the information, but the identity of the U.S. person was obscured — “minimized,” in agency jargon — under such a term as “US person number one.”

Stellarwind was bountiful. From 2001 through 2005 it produced hundreds of reports covering “terrorist planning, finances, logistics, training, travel and contacts with people in the United States,” including the illegal purchase of arms and U.S. persons linked to terrorist mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Uncountable “dirty numbers” revealed terrorist ties to persons in the United States. These leads were handed to the FBI for further analysis or action.

Over the months the program flourished, Gen. Hayden gave more than a dozen briefings to the congressional intelligence oversight committees, first to the leadership, then to rank-and-file members. No serious objections were voiced. Indeed, much later a congressional report criticized the NSA for not doing enough interceptions. The NSA inspector general, Joel Brenner, later commented that “any president who failed to collect the intelligence authorized by this program would have been derelict in his duty.

Eventually, hints of Stellarwind leaked to the media. When New York Times reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau let it be known they were pursuing a story, President Bush met with publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., and told him the paper would be “wrong” to disclose a program that was protecting America.

Indeed, if another attack was successful, Mr. Bush told Mr. Sulzberger, he “expected the Times leadership to be up on the Hill, right hands in the air along with the leadership of the intelligence community, explaining to Congress how they permitted it to happen.” Mr. Sulzberger ignored the president, and the Times published the story (albeit inaccurate and misleading, as Gen. Hayden contends).

Gen. Hayden spent much of his time at the CIA trying to restore institutional morale that suffered from disclosures of detention programs that sometimes involved rough treatment of captured terrorists. He made a point of being a conspicuous presence at CIA “family days” when spouses and children roam the Langley campus.

Gen. Hayden’s title is derived from how a good athlete “takes advantage of the entire playing field right up to the sideline markers and endlines. He concedes that espionage “often proves controversial, and I fear we will not be able to do that in the future without our public’s deeper understanding of what American intelligence is and does.” His highly readable book is a commendable step in the right direction.

Gen. Hayden maintains, with justifiable contempt, “Most American intelligence professionals are well-acquainted with the broad cultural rhythm connecting American intelligence practitioners and American political elites: The latter group gets to criticize the former for not doing enough when it feels in danger, while reserving the right to criticize for doing too much as soon as it is made to feel safe again.”

And the media should heed a comment Gen. Hayden quotes from columnist David Ignatius: “We journalists usually try to argue that we have carefully weighed the pros and cons and believe that the public benefit of disclosure outweighs any potential harm.

“The problem is that we aren’t fully qualified to make these judgments.”

Joseph C. Goulden is the author of 18 nonfiction books, including several on intelligence.


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