Ex-US Spy Chief On Surveillance, Rendition, and Targeted Killings

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Secret black sites, illegal surveillance of American citizens' communications, waterboarding — General Michael Hayden overseen it all, and he doesn't have a single regret.

Between 1999–2005 Hayden was director of US eavesdropping agency the NSA, and between 2006-2009 he was director of US spy agency the CIA. He served under the presidencies of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.

On Friday, Hayden, who is now retired, gave a speech at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy in the state of Michigan. Over the course of about 60 minutes, he reflected at length on everything from extrajudicial killings of suspected terrorists to extraordinary renditions (or kidnapping) of suspected al-Qaeda members. It was an unapologetic speech that occasionally verged into sociopathic territory. It was also, at times, revelatory.

Here are a few highlights:

  • Approximately two hours after the first terror attack on New York in September 2001, Hayden used his authority as chief of the NSA to "dial things up" and get more "aggressive" with communications interception. This prompted a colleague at the CIA to tell him, jokingly, that he was "going to jail," and in turn led President George W. Bush to authorise the domestic wiretapping program that permitted the NSA to spy on emails and phone calls of Americans without a warrant.
  • Hayden is "personally grateful" to President Barack Obama for protecting him from being held to account in a court of law by invoking state secrets privilege.
  • A 2008 amendment to the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act "legitimated" everything president Bush had authorised the NSA to do regarding the domestic wiretapping of communications and "gave the NSA a great deal more authority to do these kinds of things."
  • Hayden says there has been "powerful continuity" between the counter-terror tactics used by President Bush and President Obama, including on extraordinary rendition. However, he said one area of discontinuity is that Obama has a preference for killing terror suspects as opposed to capturing them — because it is now considered "so politically dangerous and so legally difficult" to capture.
  • On 11 September 2001, the day of the Twin Towers attacks, Hayden explained how he stood behind blacked out curtains at an NSA building in Washington and thought to himself, "things are going to be different around here tomorrow. We have entered into an entirely new era."

    Within about two hours of the first plane striking the first World Trade Center tower that morning, Hayden said he had used his authority to "dial things up a little bit" at the NSA in order to give the agency "a higher probability we would intercept those kind of messages that would tell us about the next attack." Hayden didn't elaborate exactly on what it means to "dial things up," but I think it's safe to assume it means intercepting a much larger volume of communications. (Hayden said that because he had "dialed things up" then-CIA director George Tenet a few days later joked to him that he was "going to jail" but President Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney said it was alright because they would "bail him out.")

    In the weeks ahead, President Bush gave Hayden more powers. This led to the domestic wiretapping scandal revealed by the New York Times in 2005, which exposed how the NSA had been granted authority to spy on "the international telephone calls and international e-mail messages of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people inside the United States without warrants over the past three years in an effort to track possible 'dirty numbers' linked to al Qaeda."

    But that was just the start. And despite the controversy around the domestic wiretapping exposed by the New York Times, as Hayden said in his speech, a 2008 amendment to the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act "not only legitimated almost everything President Bush had told me to do under his article two authorities as commander in chief but in fact gave the NSA a great deal more authority to do these kinds of things."

    Aside from the surveillance, Hayden also overseen a variety of other ghoulish new tactics brought in amid the terror fears. There was the kidnapping, or extraordinary rendition, of suspects from one country to the other — often to countries where they were allegedly subject to torture, like Egypt and Libya. There was also the secret black sites — hidden prisons in locations such as Poland and Thailand — where terror suspects were subjected to a variety of so-called 'enhanced interrogation techniques' like waterboarding, which makes a person feel like they are drowning. Not to mention the Guantanamo Bay prison, the indefinate detention of accused terrorists, and the birth of remote-controlled drone strikes as a method of 'targeted killing' or extrajudicial assassination — however you want to term it.

    None of this Hayden has any reservations about. In his speech he explained it was all about how America had to "take the fight to the enemy" wherever he (or she) may be. He even recounted a meeting in Germany during the spring of 2007, where he gave a speech to a room of about two dozen people including representatives from every country in the European Union. He spoke about extraordinary rendition and America's tactics in the War on Terror. Not one person present in the room, he said, agreed with any of the justifications he gave for the use of such tactics. But this didn't dissuade him. His essential position could be summarised as, "how could we possibly be wrong?" Perhaps a mindset that can be attributed to American exceptionalism, the belief that the US has a unique mission in the world to spread its ideals.

    Hayden was evidently not preoccupied at all with minor irritations like human rights obligations and international law. Rather, he explained how his main concern was in early 2009, when Barack Obama was sworn in to the White House. He was worried that Obama, a Democrat who had voiced strong criticism of George W. Bush's counter-terror policies, might seek to scale back efforts in the War on Terror. Hayden had at this point moved to the CIA, where he was director. But his fears about Obama being a soft touch were quickly alleviated.

    Obama continued almost all of Bush's policies, Hayden explained, because he realised "we are at war" with al-Qaeda and its affiliates. In the end, there was a "powerful continuity" between Bush and Obama, Hayden said.

    "Targeted killings have continued, in fact if you look at the statistics targeted killings have increased under Obama" ... "renditions, that's the extrajudicial movement of suspected terrorists from place A to place B — our policy is the same under President Obama as it was under President Bush and President Clinton."

    He went on: Obama "didn't shut Guantanamo" and he also took the same position as Bush on "indefinite detention and state secrets" ... "I am personally grateful to Obama for using the state secrets argument to stop some of these court proceedings — because I am personally named in some of these courts."

    Perhaps most revealing, the one discontinuity between Bush and Obama from a counter-terror perspective, Hayden said, was (and is) the difference between the presidents when it comes to killing or capturing terror suspects. Under Bush many suspected insurgents were captured, incarcerated and interrogated. Under Obama, according to Hayden, just one person has been held outside of Iraq and Afghanistan since January 2009. Obama has been accused of preferring to kill than capture, though this is something he has denied. He said in a recent interview that "our preference has always been to capture when we can because we can gather intelligence" but that it’s sometimes "very difficult to capture them."

    According to Hayden, however, the kill rather than capture policy is a political decision.

    "We have made it so politically dangerous and so legally difficult that we don't capture anyone anymore. We take another option. We kill them," he said. And in a thinly veiled criticism of Obama's aggressive killing policy, Hayden added: "We're losing the opportunity to interrogate and to learn about our enemy."

    When you weigh up Hayden's comments, the essence of what he is saying is quite extraordinary. This is a man who openly admits has has no qualms whatsoever about some of the most brutal and contentious tactics that have been used by the United States over the last decade or so. The wiretapping, the renditions that contravene international law, the interrogation techniques widely considered to constitute torture, the extrajudicial killings in countries like Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, where there has been no formal declaration of war. And here he is applauding Barack Obama, a president elected on a platform oppositional to many of these tactics, for keeping up a "powerful continuity." In fact, his only criticism of Obama is that he is doing too much killing.

    The other thing that struck me about Hayden in this speech was his general demenour. The way he was making quips and smirking about how he was thankful Obama was protecting him from being held to account in American courts over the actions of the agencies he was in charge of. There was an arrogance about his comments, an air of impunity. Hayden came off as a man with an almost sociopathic disdain for the basic rule of law.

    His justification for the controversial tactics was simple: al-Qaeda and its affiliates constitute a "new threat to old institutions." Terror groups have no regard for laws like the Geneva Convention and blur the distinction between civilian and combatant. Therefore, and this is the core logic underpinning Hayden's remarks, America's security apparatus has to do the same. It has to evolve (or, rather, regress) and "take the fight to the enemy" using whatever means necessary.

    The problem is that there is no conclusive evidence anywhere to suggest that this is a successful method of combating the threat in the first place. Killing people and indefinitely detaining them, implementing secret systems of mass surveillance — these are things that have lowered America's standing in the world. If you flout the rule of law, if you sink to a level of legal nihilism, you immediately lose the moral high-ground. You also make more enemies than friends. As we are seeing with US drone strikes in Yemen, where many civilians have been killed by American missiles, the US may only be inspiring a new generation of Jihadists by spreading fear across entire regions of countries while pursuing small handfuls of men who have been deemed a threat through a process that is itself contentious and conceivably highly flawed. Hayden seems convinced that what he presided over at the NSA and CIA was right, just, and absolutley necessary to protect America. But he has not won the argument and I don't think he ever will.

    He told the audience at one point that they, as Americans, in reference to the CIA, were "blessed as a people with the talent and the morality of the folks who are in your chief espionage service." I couldn't help recall at this point the case of a Muslim cleric known as Abu Omar. He was accused of plotting terrorism and snatched by CIA agents from a street in Milan, Italy in broad daylight on 17 February, 2003. Omar was taken to Egypt where he was imprisoned in Tura, 20 miles south of Cairo, and handed over to Egyptian security services. He said he was twice raped, suffered electroshock treatment and lost the hearing in his left ear due to repeated beatings. He was eventually released by the Egyptian government in 2007, after a state security court ruled that his detention was unfounded. There are many cases similar to this. All of them call into question the morality of those involved, and that includes General Michael Hayden and the staff he commanded.

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