Whether Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden can bring the Central Intelligence Agency out of its doldrums is a question whose answer we may not have until long after he has left his post as CIA director — assuming he is confirmed. His appointment has raised questions that are worth discussion as the United States struggles to cope with the dangers posed by stateless terrorists motivated more by religious and ideological convictions than nationalist loyalties and concerns.
Gen. Hayden has relevant experience, given he is former director of the Defense Department’s National Security Agency, the country’s electronic eyes and ears overseas, or “signals intelligence.” However, retired Gen. William E. Odom, who headed the NSA for three years during the Reagan administration, said Gen. Hayden seems to “have no clue about human intelligence. Signals intelligence and human intelligence are like swimming and flying an airplane.”
What Hayden has shown from the beginning of his career, however, is a flair for administrative work, and heading a large — probably too large — organization requires administrative skills that Porter Goss, a former CIA operative, real estate investor and Congressman, seems to have lacked.
While it would be good public relations for Hayden to retire from the military before confirmation hearings to head civilian intelligence, his military background may be less an issue than some believe. Hayden crossed swords with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld when he headed the NSA, and there’s evidence that despite having been assistant to John Negroponte, Director of National Intelligence under the new system set up in the wake of intelligence failures before 9/11 and the Iraq war, he may not be Negroponte’s errand boy either.
Making the CIA more effective, however, could require much more than administrative skills, being respected as a briefer and being independent. It requires someone who understands the distinctions in this conflict from other conflicts. In the age of terrorism perpetrated by jihadist fanatics who may benefit from being associated with a government but don’t have to be, the threats to this country are more dispersed and difficult to identify than in the Cold War days when the chief threat was the Soviet Union, its satellites and those it could influence.
Gathering accurate information about such dispersed threats is in many ways more of a challenge than electronic spying on nation-states. The U.S. has made mistakes in dealing with jihadism in part because it has had little first-hand intelligence of the kind that only human beings operating in delicate and sometimes dangerous environments can gather. Even with a firm commitment to building such capacity — and there is little evidence even of recognition of the need — it would take years to develop it.
Senate hearings should encourage discussion of these issues, as well as a through exploration of Hayden’s role in setting up the NSA’s program of warrantless surveillance of Americans that was exposed in December. Not all threats to American liberty come from overseas; some arise from overreaching government.