(reprinted from the 4/29/2018 New York Times)
Michael Hayden: The End of Intelligence
n 1994 during the height of the Bosnian civil war, when I was head of intelligence for American forces in Europe, I walked through the ruined streets of Sarajevo. A city of once-beautiful steeples, onion-shaped domes and minarets had been devastated by Serbian artillery in the hills rising above the Miljacka River. I wondered what manner of man could pick up a sniper rifle and shoot former neighbors lining up for scarce water at a shuttered brewery.
What struck me most, though, was not how Sarajevans were different from us, but how much they weren’t. This had obviously been a cultured, tolerant, vibrant place that had been ripped asunder by the conflict pitting Muslim Bosniaks against Christian Serbs and Croats.
The veneer of civilization, I concluded, was quite thin — a natural thought for an intelligence officer whose profession trends pessimistic and whose work is consumed by threats and dangers. Over the years I had learned that the traditions and institutions that protect us from living Hobbesian “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” lives are inherently fragile and demand careful tending. In America today, they are under serious stress.
It was no accident that the Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the yearin 2016 was “post-truth,” a condition where facts are less influential in shaping opinion than emotion and personal belief. To adopt post-truth thinking is to depart from Enlightenment ideas, dominant in the West since the 17th century, that value experience and expertise, the centrality of fact, humility in the face of complexity, the need for study and a respect for ideas.
President Trump both reflects and exploits this kind of thinking. It is fair to say that the Trump campaign normalized lying to an unprecedented degree. There was the candidate’s claim that legions of Arabs celebrated wildly in New Jersey as the World Trade Center collapsed. He defended his calls for the intentional killing of the Sept. 11 terrorists’ families because “they knew what was happening” and had “watched their husband on television flying into the World Trade Center,” something for which there is zero evidence. He insinuated that Senator Ted Cruz’s father had a hand in John F. Kennedy’s assassination and that the Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia had been murdered.
When pressed on specifics, the president has routinely denigrated those who questioned him, whether the “fake” media, “so called” judges, Washington insiders or the “deep state.” He has also condemned Obama-era intelligence officials as “political hacks.”
David Priess, an intelligence officer who once gave presidential daily briefings, asked me whether I thought Mr. Trump could distinguish between truth and untruth. He raised the controversial speech Mr. Trump gave at a Boy Scout Jamboree in West Virginia in July 2017, a speech that was overly political and occasionally tasteless. In the face of sharp criticism, the president said that the Scouts’ leader had called him to say it was “the greatest speech that was ever made to them.”
Of course, no such call ever occurred. But was Mr. Trump actually able to draw a distinction between the past that had really happened and the past that he needed at that moment? Mr. Priess’s point was that you could sometimes convince a liar that he was wrong. What do you do with someone who does not distinguish between truth and untruth?
We in the intelligence world have dealt with obstinate and argumentative presidents through the years. But we have never served a president for whom ground truth really doesn’t matter.
I knew many of them, indeed had grown up with several. But we could have been from different planets. They were angry. They work hard, pay taxes and struggle to raise children, but feel neglected by their government. And Donald Trump is still their guy. “He is an American.” “He is genuine.” “He doesn’t filter everything or parse every word.”
They didn’t seem very interested in facts, either. Or at least not in my facts. Political partisanship in America has become what David Brooks calls “totalistic.” Partisan identity, as he writes, fills “the void left when their other attachments wither away — religious, ethnic, communal and familial.” Beliefs are now so tied to these identities that data is not particularly useful to argue a point.
Intelligence work — at least as practiced in the Western liberal tradition — reflects these threatened Enlightenment values: gathering, evaluating and analyzing information, and then disseminating conclusions for use, study or refutation.
How the erosion of Enlightenment values threatens good intelligence was obvious in the Trump administration’s ill-conceived and poorly carried out executive order that looked to the world like a Muslim ban.
That order was almost certainly not the product of intelligence analysis about the threat posed by immigrants from certain nations, but rather the president trying to fulfill a campaign promise based on exaggerated fears about immigrants and unfair criticism of the refugee vetting system. One former senior intelligence official told me that when the ban was announced internally, everyone was simply told to get on board.
I joined several other former directors and acting directors of the C.I.A., two former deputy directors, a former director of national intelligence and a former head of the National Counterterrorism Center and others in filing an amicus brief opposing the ban. The people now occupying our old positions were notably silent on the merits of the order.
Over time it has become clear to me that security decisions in the Trump administration follow a certain pattern. Discussion seems to start with a presidential statement or tweet. Then follows a large-scale effort to inform the president, to impress upon him the complexity of an issue, to review the relevant history, to surface more factors bearing on the problem, to raise second- and third-order consequences and to explore subsequent moves.
It’s not easy. The president by all accounts is not a patient man. According to The Washington Post, one Trump confidant called him “the two-minute man” with “patience for a half page.” He insists on five-page or shorter intelligence briefs, rather than the 60 pages we typically gave previous presidents. There is something inherently disturbing in that. There are some problems that cannot be simplified.
Sometimes, almost magically, he gets it right. The president’s speech last August on Afghanistan was worth listening to, clearly the product of the traditional deliberative process where intelligence sets the picture based on the best available information, and then security agencies weigh in with views that are adjudicated by the National Security Council.
But the Afghan experience has been the exception. The president continues to attack the Iranian nuclear deal and is likely to end it even in the face of intelligence that Iran has not committed a material breach of the compact, that the deal makes it more difficult for Iran to build a weapon and that it gives us visibility into its nuclear program.
Then there is Russia. The president only recently and grudgingly agreed to impose sanctions on Russians believed to have interfered in the American election, and he continues to characterize the investigation as a “witch hunt” while relentlessly attacking agencies of his own administration.
He humiliated the attorney general, undercut his national security adviser and engaged in personal vendettas against senior F.B.I. officials.
A few months after Mr. Trump’s inauguration, I got a call from a colleague who thought he might be on a very short list for a very senior position. He asked my opinion. I told him that three months earlier I would have talked to him about his duty to serve. Now I was telling him to say no. “You’re a young man,” I said. “Don’t put yourself at risk for the future. You have a lot to offer. Someday.”
When asked for counsel these days by officers who are already in government, especially more junior ones, I remind them of their duty to help the president succeed. But then I add: “Protect yourself. Take notes and save them. And above all, protect the institution. America still needs it.”
That creates a deeper dilemma. Intelligence becomes a feeble academic exercise if it is not relevant and useful. It always has to adapt to the idiosyncrasies, learning style, policies and priorities of any president to preserve its relevance and utility. But there have to be limits. History — and the next president — will judge American intelligence, and if it is found to have been too accommodating to this or any other president, it will be disastrous for the community.
These are truly uncharted waters for the country. We have in the past argued over the values to be applied to objective reality, or occasionally over what constituted objective reality, but never the existence or relevance of objective reality itself.
In this post-truth world, intelligence agencies are in the bunker with some unlikely mates: journalism, academia, the courts, law enforcement and science — all of which, like intelligence gathering, are evidence-based. Intelligence shares a broader duty with these other truth-tellers to preserve the commitment and ability of our society to base important decisions on our best judgment of what constitutes objective reality.
The historian Timothy Snyder stresses the importance of reality and truth in his cautionary pamphlet, “On Tyranny.” “To abandon facts,” he writes, “is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power because there is no basis upon which to do so.” He then chillingly observes, “Post-truth is pre-fascism.”
On a recent visit to the C.I.A., as I was standing near the iconic shield in the grand lobby, I was approached by a young officer who introduced himself and told me his story.
Born in Iraq, he became a translator for United States forces during the heavy fighting in Anbar Province. He later made his way to this country, declined an opportunity to attend an Ivy League college and volunteered for the Army. He became a crypto-linguist, working for the National Security Agency, helping fellow soldiers master the intricacies of Arabic. He then joined the C.I.A., where he was, with obvious enthusiasm, putting his skills to good use.
I was at the agency that day to attend the retirement ceremony of a Chinese-American officer who had aided me in my overseas travels, and I got to meet her immigrant parents. I left the headquarters that day with a little more hope than when I entered. For me, that morning felt more like America and its promise than what I was routinely seeing elsewhere.
Still, I wondered whether the officers I saw at the ceremony realized how much we are now counting on them. They know we traditionally rely on their truth-telling to protect us from our enemies. Now we need it to save us from ourselves.
Michael V. Hayden was the director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2006 to 2009 and the National Security Agency from 1999 to 2005. This essay was adapted from his forthcoming book, “The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies.”