Playing to the Edge: A Conversation with Michael Hayden

Playing to The Edge, written by former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden, offers insight into many of the programs under his responsibility. He discusses NSA’s data collection, the enhanced interrogation program, relations with Congress and the media. American Thinker had the privilege of conducting an extension interview with him regarding these programs and their relevance to current events. While future articles will discuss issues such as Guantanamo Bay, Hillary Clinton’s emails, and ISIS, this article concentrates on the issue of privacy versus security, including the controversy of Apple’s decision regarding a terrorist’s phone.

Hayden told American Thinker he wrote the book “to pull back the veil to give Americans a better understanding of what the intelligence community does for American security. Despite its great importance, it is highly misunderstood.” The book highlights NSA data collection, and Hayden makes a very good point, that much of the fear is rooted in misunderstanding. He clearly explains how Stellarwind, the Metadata program, became an enormously useful way to track who foreign terrorists are talking to in the United States without sacrificing any significant measure of privacy. Readers will understand that those in the intelligence community and the Bush administration were not focused on world domination, and had no interest in listening to a person’s phone calls, unless they were speaking with a terrorist.

It becomes evident after reading the book and talking with General Hayden that intelligence operates in a universal gray area, where there is a need to balance freedom and security. He explained to American Thinker, “We put together with Stellarwind a massive file of the history of American phone calls. But the files were accessed only with strict and limited circumstances. For example, if you pick up a phone never seen before, associated with terrorism, you can ask the database if the phone’s history has ever been in contact with anyone in the U.S. The database is accessed by an intelligence professional that thinks they have a reasonable suspicion that a particular phone number is connected with terrorism. In order for John Doe to be triggered he would have to be in touch, either directly or indirectly, a phone number overseas that is believed to be terrorist related.”

There are also safeguards in place that include limiting the number of intelligence professionals who are dealing with the data to about twenty. The database also has 100% keystroke monitoring, which means there is always a permanent record of any inquiries. By the second Bush Aaministration there was legislation passed in the Protect America Act and FISA Act that gave authority. And as Hayden noted, “even the most caustic critics of this program do not allege it has been misused.”

Fast-forward to today where Apple CEO Tim Cook said that his company will fight a federal magistrate judge’s order requiring the electronics giant to cooperate with the FBI, which is attempting to obtain emails, text messages, and phone numbers from the phone of the San Bernardino terrorist Syed Rizwan Farook. The information requested could determine whether anyone conspired with county health inspector Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik as they killed 14 people and wounded 22 at the Inland Regional Center on December 2nd. Many of the victim’s family members have criticized Apple, and as one commented, the “I” in I-phone stands for ISIS.

Recently, FBI director James Comey wrote an open letter to Apple, emphasizing the delicate balance between "embracing the technology we love" and “getting the safety we need.” Anyone who reads Playing to The Edge could draw an interesting conclusion: it appears Comey has made a 180-degree turnaround. Publicly he has tried to put forth an image of opposing all the Metadata programs when it appears the reality is just the opposite. Hayden and Comey seem to be in agreement, when comparing what Comey says today about Apple to what Hayden said in the book, where Metadata is defined as “the pattern of how a communications device was used (whom did it call, who called it, when, and for how long.)” Yet, the book points out that as acting attorney general, Comey felt these programs where the most aggressive assertion of presidential power in America’s history. It appears Comey has changed his mind after dealing with terrorism at first hand.

So where does the former NSA Director Hayden weigh in? He believes that “People have a right to privacy, but they also have a right to live. Fundamentally we need Cyber security, and need to secure communications as well. For me, the burden of proof is on Apple to prove that it leads to a bad end state. Apple has done it in the past and now is deciding they do not want to do it. I think Tim Cook has a pretty good principle to defend, but he is corrupting his argument as he tries to avoid this. I do agree that if you put a back door in something the encryption becomes weaker. It would introduce an additional vulnerability. On balance, American security is better served with an unbreakable end to end encryption.”

He further noted that Apple does not “have to crack the password. All they had to do is to suppress the operating system so the self-destructive mechanism does not trigger. It is one thing for Apple to claim we are opposed to putting back doors in all of our products; yet, it is another thing to claim as they are doing now. It is unreasonable for them to imply, ‘we will never assist law enforcement at any time for any purpose.’ I think this is a narrowly focused specific request on one phone, and not a universal attempt to put in back doors.”

Hayden basically agrees with John Brennan, the current CIA Director, who said in an interview, “individuals are liberally giving up their privacy, you know, sometimes wittingly and sometimes unwittingly, as they give information to companies or to sales reps. Or they go out on Facebook or the various social media. They don't realize though that they are then making themselves vulnerable to exploitation.”

The question of vulnerabilities is made clearer through a story Hayden tells American Thinker. After making a speech, Hayden used his cell phone to call an Uber vehicle.  Anyone using this app has their location broadcast. As he was getting into the car his email lit up and Groupon informed him that he could use a coupon for a restaurant that was in close proximity. So yes, he thinks Brennan makes a good point.

In Playing to The Edge Michael Hayden shows how important intelligence is to America’s security. People might not always agree with him, but one thing is for certain he believes in the Constitution, is a patriot, and his only agenda is to protect his fellow citizens.

The author writes for American Thinker. She has done book reviews, author interviews, and has written a number of national security, political, and foreign policy articles.