Retired Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, a former director of the both the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Security Agency (NSA), is a principal at the Chertoff Group, a business consultancy established by former director of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff. Hayden is also a frequent commentator on Fox News who staunchly defends controversial "war on terror" policies and promotes aggressive U.S. foreign policies.
During his tenure in government, Hayden presided over several controversial government programs, including the warrantless wiretapping of U.S. citizens' phone calls and the use of armed drones overseas. Since leaving office, Hayden has insisted that the wiretapping program was "effective, appropriate, and lawful." A federal judge, however, subsequently ruled that the program likely violated the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which was enacted by Congress "specifically to rein in and create a judicial check for executive-branch abuses of surveillance authority."
Hayden has repeatedly defended the Bush administration's use of so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques"—methods of interrogation that are commonly considered torture, such as waterboarding—against alleged high-ranking members of al-Qaeda. In 2008, Hayden confirmed that the CIA had waterboarded at least three detainees hundreds of times, citing that "the belief that additional catastrophic attacks against the homeland were inevitable."
After the assassination of Osama bin Laden by U.S. forces in Pakistan, Hayden penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal claiming that he "personally took more than half of the [enhanced] techniques (including waterboarding) off the table in 2007 because American law had changed, our understanding of the threat had deepened, and we were now blessed with additional sources of information." But he also contended unequivocally that "Information derived from enhanced interrogation techniques helped lead us to bin Laden," even likening skeptics of the claim to 9/11 conspiracy theorists or those who believe that President Obama is not an American citizen. However, subsequent reports revealed that key intelligence leading up to the bin Laden raid was secured from detainees who were never tortured, and moreover that detainees who were tortured often provided false information that may have only prolonged the hunt for bin Laden. (For more information, see Peter Certo, "Enhanced Embellishment Techniques," Right Web, June 8, 2011.)
Reaction to 2014 Senate Report on CIA Torture
In early 2014, shortly after Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, called for the public release of a Senate-approved report critical of the CIA torture program, Hayden claimed on Fox News that the senator was showing "deep emotional feeling" but not objectivity. The comment spurred intense criticism from Feinstein's Democratic colleagues, including Sen. Tom Udall, who called Hayden's charge "baseless" and "sexist." Said Sen. Ron Wyden: "Over the past five years I watched Chairman Feinstein manage this investigation in an extremely thorough and professional manner, and the result is an extraordinarily detailed report based on millions of pages of internal CIA records, including operational cables, internal memos, and interview transcripts." Hayden's comment elicited criticism even from some conservative commentators. Fox's Chris Wallace, who interviewed Hayden, responded incredulously, asking the former CIA chief, "Forgive me because you and I both know Senator Feinstein. I have the highest regard for her. You're saying you think she was emotional in these conclusions?"
After a largely redacted version of the Senate torture report was released in December 2014, Senator Feinstein said that it showed that Hayden had misrepresented the CIA interrogation program by describing it in previous Senate testimony as "minimally harmful and applied in highly clinical and professional manner."
"My testimony is consistent with what I was told and what I had read in CIA records," quipped Hayden during an interview with POLITICO. "I said what the agency told me, but I didn't just accept it at face value. I did what research I could on my own, but I had a 10-day window in which to look at this thing [the committee's request for information]. I was actually in Virginia for about 30 hours and studied the program for about three before I went up to testify."
In September 2015, Hayden and several other former CIA officials (including George Tenet, Porter Goss, and Jose Rodriguez) published a book titled Rebuttal: The CIA Responds to the Senate Intelligence Committee's Study of Its Detention and Interrogation Program. According to one review: "While many of the former spy leaders admit the torture program was controversial, all defend the use and legality of the harsh techniques, which included waterboarding and rectal feeding."
CIA torture program whistleblower John Kiriakou opined of Rebuttal: "I know that these former intelligence leaders are lying because I worked with them at the CIA. When I blew the whistle on the CIA's torture program in 2007, they came down on me like a ton of bricks."
Senator Feinstein argued that the book "doesn't lay a glove on the factual accuracy of the Committee's report." She added: "The essays do not contradict the SSCI's main conclusions: that these interrogation techniques were brutal and did not produce information that was not already obtained in more traditional and acceptable ways by intelligence and law enforcement personnel."
Support for Expansive NSA Surveillance
Following revelations in Spring 2013 that the National Security Agency was gathering large quantities of "metadata" about the private communications of American citizens, Hayden claimed that the program was necessary to prevent terrorist attacks and defended the administration's purported transparency. He also praised the Barack Obama administration's oversight of the agency. "Frankly, the Obama administration was more transparent about this effort than we were in the Bush administration," Hayden told CNN. "They made this metadata collection activity available to all the members of Congress. Not just all the members of the intelligence committees."
In a separate interview, Hayden praised the Obama administration's approach to surveillance for its "incredible continuity" with the Bush administration. "We've had two very different presidents pretty much doing the same thing with regard to electronic surveillance. That seems to me to suggest that these things do work," he said. In fact, Hayden added, Obama had actually expanded the program. Under a 2008 FISA expansion supported by then-Sen. Obama, Hayden said, "NSA is actually empowered to do more things than I was empowered to do under President Bush's special authorization."
One former NSA analyst, Kirk Wiebe, criticized Hayden and other surveillance advocates for inverting the constitutional standard that suspects are innocent until proven guilty. "Michael Hayden and others have recast the Fourth Amendment from one that is based on probable cause in presenting evidence for subsequent invasion of privacy to one of reasonable suspicion," Wiebe told NPR. "We have not had the public discussion or agreement by the American people to define what that means and what the ramifications of that are in terms of the government's ability to view into our private lives."
In a January 2015 speech, Hayden opined that his standards for what he thought was appropriate for the NSA to do in terms of surveillance changed after the 9/11 attacks. "I actually started to do different things," he said. "And I didn't need to ask 'mother, may I' from the Congress or the president or anyone else."
A writer for The Atlantic responded: "The more innocent people that terrorists succeed in murdering, the less our own government is limited by the Constitution. With every attack that the government fails to prevent it gains new powers."
Hayden has also derided NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and brushed aside any suggestions that he should be allowed to return to the United States, saying in October 2015 that Snowden will "die in Moscow." He has also implied that Snowden may be a "foreign agent," saying that he has "suspicions" but "no evidence."
In a June 2015 speech, Hayden expressed satisfaction with the limited reforms that the NSA had to undertake after the Snowden revelations. "If somebody would come up to me and say 'Look, Hayden, here's the thing: This Snowden thing is going to be a nightmare for you guys for about two years. And when we get all done with it, what you're going to be required to do is that little 215 program about American telephony metadata—and by the way, you can still have access to it, but you got to go to the court and get access to it from the companies, rather than keep it to yourself'—I go: 'And this is it after two years? Cool!'"
Middle East Hawk
Hayden pushed a hardline "pro-Israel" position during the Iranian nuclear negotiations and denounced the agreement reached between Iran and six world powers in July 2015. He supported Israeli Prime Minister's controversial address to Congress in March 2015 criticizing the Obama administration's diplomacy with Iran, writing at the time: "Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seeing the handwriting on the wall as clearly as Babylonian King Belshazzar in the Book of Daniel, has hurried to Washington to make an eleventh-hour appeal to Congress. (Belshazzar was killed and his capital sacked by the Persians the very night of Daniel's prophecy). Netanyahu's haste is understandable. The draft agreement represents what has fairly been described as massive and irreversible concessions to Iran."
After the deal was reached, Hayden declared that "a standing congressional authorization for the use of military force should Iran seriously violate the agreement seems a no-brainer." He added that the "cost" of the deal "must be making the DOD budget healthy" and also called for "more arms for our Arab friends and for Israel." For Israel, he stated: "I would include (as former administration adviser Dennis Ross suggests) a promise of the 'MOP,' the 30,000-pound bunker-busting Massive Ordnance Penetrator capable of destroying the hardened Iranian nuclear facility at Fordow."
After the November 2015 ISIS terrorist attacks in Paris, Hayden stated that the fight against ISIS in Syria was "under-resourced and over-regulated" and claimed that the United States needed to "commit more to the fight" and "loosen our rules of engagement."
During the 2016 Republican presidential primary, Hayden opined in regards to the understanding that GOP candidate Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon, has of foreign policy: "His instincts are alright."
Hayden served as a foreign policy adviser to Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign. He drew attention in January 2012 when, in contrast to Romney's more hawkish bluster on Iran, he cautioned against a U.S. strike on Iran's alleged nuclear weapons facilities. According to The New York Times' "Caucus" blog, Hayden "told analysts and reporters in Washington … that a military strike would provoke Iran to move even more rapidly toward developing a nuclear weapon, and would drive the program underground." After the Times noted that Romney had "said repeatedly that he would consider military action to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon," Hayden clarified that "he advises Mr. Romney on intelligence matters, not on Iran."
Hayden later joined his voice to a chorus of conservative commentators who questioned the timing of the release of information about the Gen. David Petraeus sex scandal, which broke in November 2012. Hayden called the timing "mysterious," echoing other pundits who were concerned that the scandal could impede the investigation into the Benghazi, Libya attacks.
In addition to his other private-sector work, Hayden has served on the advisory board of Lignet.com (the Langley Intelligence Group Network), an online news service that is part of the conservative Newsmax Media group. Lignet claims to provide "global intelligence and forecasting from former CIA, U.S. intelligence, and national security officers, drawing on an international network of experts and sources." Advisors to Lignet have included several other high-profile right-wing figures, including John Bolton and former Ambassador Otto Reich. Fred Fleitz, a controversial former CIA analyst and State Department official, has served as the managing editor of Lignet.