Former NSA Director Michael Hayden gives lecture on modern security threats

Michael Hayden, former Director of the NSA and CIA and US Air Force four-star general, gave a talk as part of the President’s Lecture Series on Wednesday, March 16. In a lecture titled “Danger, Complexity, and Immediacy: Today’s Security Challenges,” General Hayden spoke on some of the major issues affecting domestic security at the moment, dividing them into five “tectonics,” or macro movements. Hayden covered a lot of ground over the course of the hour-long lecture, touching on subjects ranging from technological advancements in terrorist groups, to the changing geopolitical boundaries of nation-states over time, to Russian and Iranian nuclear operations, to our tenuous relationship with China. He began the talk by reassuring the audience, “As ugly as the world is today, I have seen it more dangerous,” though he quickly followed up with, “But never more complicated.”

The first tectonic that Hayden covered was the rapidly changing nature of how power is defined on a geopolitical scale. He first cited an article written by former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, who said that the only ‘pieces on the board’ that mattered during his tenure (the Ford and first Bush administrations) were nation-states and ‘hard-power,’ or “masses of men and metal.” Power during Scowcroft’s active years was recognized as industrial actors that “strengthened the [central government].” The biggest threat in that era was a malevolent government.

Today, Hayden believes we see that dynamic shifting. While the industrial era was defined by power accumulating to the center, in the post-industrial era (now) this power is pushed out to the fringes. “Things for which we used to rely on an empowered central government are now within the reach of sub-governmental groups, gangs, and individuals,” said Hayden. He pointed out that while this has been a good thing for many areas of society, it has also allowed greater sophistication in the attacks of malevolent actors. Terrorism, transnational crime, and cyber attacks no longer require state-sponsored actors. “I never used to lose sleep over religious fanatics living in the Hindu Kush. But we now do,” Hayden said.

Hayden expanded on this technological advancement angle with a brief mention of domestic surveillance. Due to the increasing ability to use technology instead of humans to fight our enemies, “we are having discussions and arguments about [how this technology is applied]. [Americans] have not decided how we want to deal with these threats.” Unfortunately, for what was arguably the most controversial part of Hayden’s career, this was the only allusion to the PRISM program in his presentation.

Hayden’s second tectonic was an examination of the geopolitical boundaries we have historically used to divide continents into countries and how impermanent they actually are. He showed the audience two maps of Europe with different lines drawn on each one, and pointed out how much the boundaries have been modified over the course of about 50 years. Even the more recent map still showed Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, which were deprecated in the Velvet Divorce nearly 100 years ago, though Hayden noted, “there was nothing velvet-y about it.” Hayden showed how Scowcroft’s ‘game piece’ metaphor starts to falter as the pieces on the board change shape and character.

Hayden looked at the borders drawn with a ruler by the British and French government officials Sykes and Picot to divide the Middle East. He cited New York Times writer Tom Friedman, who said to “distrust all straight lines on maps,” because they don’t reflect reality.

“These lines were drawn for the convenience of the European empire, indifferent to commercial, historic, linguistic, ethnic, and religious realities on the ground. They were kept in place for a hundred years by the raw imposition of external power,” Hayden said.

After the Cold War, these lines were kept in place purely because of the autocratic power of Middle Eastern countries. However, even now that some of these autocracies have been dismantled, we can’t expect things to simply return to form. “These countries aren’t coming back… What’s going on here is generational. It’s not going to be fixed by a good deal in Vienna. It’s going to take a long time for this part of the world to re-settle into a new equilibrium… The pieces aren’t what they used to be,” Hayden said. To illustrate this point, Hayden examined Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIL. al-Baghdadi has rejected the idea of sovereign nations entirely. Hayden elaborated, “Even though he calls it the ‘Islamic State,’ it’s not ‘State’ in the [traditional sense]. It’s a caliphate. His view is that ‘states,’ as you and I know the concept, are on their face, blasphemous. Why in God’s name would you put a man-made institution between the creator and his creatures? It’s not about re-drawing the lines between Iraq and Syria… The concept on which the old lines were based is being challenged.”

Hayden moved onto nation-states that are “brittle, ambitious, and nuclear” for his third tectonic. He drew attention to North Korea, which he described as a “pathological little gangster state,” and Russia. A viewgraph for a Russian nuclear torpedo, “whose range is measured in thousands of miles, and whose warhead is of megatonnage range,” appeared on Russian national television last year. Russia has previously described their first-use nuclear policy as a de-escalatory step. “I can’t explain it,” Hayden said. “We’re going to have to spend more of your tax money to modernize our nuclear deterrent, which we thought we would [spend less on].”

For context, Russia invoked a first-use, or first-strike policy in 2000. Faced with a large-scale attack that was beyond their capacity for defense, Russia allowed themselves to use nuclear weapons in response, going against the ‘no first-use’ (NFU) policy adopted by India and China (the U.K., U.S., Pakistan, and Israel also refuse to adopt NFU policies).

On the controversial Iranian nuclear deal, Hayden took a somewhat positive stance. “It’s the best nuclear deal we’ve ever had,” he said. However, he cautioned the audience, “If this deal works exactly as we have designed it, and there is no cheating, in about ten years, Iran will have an industrial-strength nuclear industry… [with] enough highly-enriched uranium to build a bomb… I’m not trying to be prescriptive, but rather, descriptive.” Hayden concluded his mixed thoughts with a passage from his latest book. “I don’t know if [the Bush administration] would have bought this deal, but it’s not like we had a lot of better ideas either.”

For the next part of the presentation, Hayden turned the audience’s attention to the Fund For Peace’s Fragile States Index, whose name was changed from the Failed States Index because “some of the failed states were complaining.” The Fragile States Index ranks countries based on a number of factors, including refugees, economic decline, human rights, rule of law, etc. He noted that the U.S. is ranked number 158, which is 21 places from the “good end,” getting points taken off for distribution of wealth and political processes. “I’m not sure what they mean,” Hayden said jokingly. “[The countries that rank higher are] small, monocultural, very successful states… Who wants to live in Finland anyway?” On the other end of the chart, Hayden pointed out Pakistan at number 10, “which is making nuclear weapons faster than any other country on Earth as we speak. They’ve got about one-hundred twenty.”

Hayden spoke on our evolving relationship with China for the fourth tectonic. “China is not an enemy of the United States of America,” he began. “Frankly, there aren’t any good reasons for China to be an enemy… There are logical, non-heroic policy choices available to us and the Chinese that keep this relationship competitive and occasionally confrontational, [but it] never has to get to the level of conflict.”

Hayden talked about China’s successes and failures. “China has pulled off an sociological and economic rarity. It has pulled four-hundred million people into a middle-class existence. That has never happened before on that scale. That said, there are serious structural issues.” Hayden looked at China’s GDP, as reported by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which declines at a rate of 10% each year as a result of “environmental effects.” He also noted China’s stock market issues and large number of civil disturbances. Taken into account with its economic decline, this could potentially strain our relationship, though Hayden did not say so in those terms. “States under stress like to wrap themselves in the cloak of nationalism… this is a relationship we have to closely monitor.”

The fifth tectonic, according to Hayden, is us. Hayden started by saying that if he were at a French university rather than Stevens, and if he was the former head of DGSE (France’s external intelligence agency), this tectonic would be higher than number 5. “This is a big deal. It’s just awkward for us to talk about it because it’s us.”

Hayden cited American political scientist Lawrence Mead, who breaks down every American president into one of four basic archetypes. Presidents can be like Alexander Hamilton, whose mantra was, “America cannot be free unless it is prosperous; America cannot be prosperous unless it is strong.” They can be like Woodrow Wilson, who lead with a righteous war-ready “manifest destiny” American idealism. Thomas Jeffersonian-esque presidents are insular, and view foreign policy as a distraction. The last major archetype is Andrew Jackson, an “Indian fighter/man of the frontier/war hero/first democrat in the White House.” Mead describes Jackson’s foreign policy as akin to ‘people who watch FOX News.’ Hayden described his foreign policy as more “Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver. ‘You talkin’ to me?’” In Hayden’s view, the last Bush was a combination of Wilson and Jackson. On the Obama administration, Hayden said, “[Many have] accused [it] of indecision, which is fundamentally inner-Wilsons fighting with inner-Jeffersons.” Hayden refrained from making any conclusive statements on the future of the country. “You get to decide on tectonic five.”

At the conclusion of the talk, Hayden fielded several audience questions. On drone strikes, Hayden deferred to a headline written for his column in The New York Times in February: “Targeted killings: necessary, precise, and imperfect. I didn’t get to choose the headline, but I’d kiss them for that one.”

One audience member asked for Hayden’s thoughts on the then ongoing battle of wills between the FBI and Apple. “Our time is up,” he joked. “It might surprise you, as someone of my background, but I [side with] Apple. There are constitutional issues. Can our government direct a private company to do something? In the security lane, I think our government has a right to demand Apple do this, I just think it’s a very bad idea. [Director of National Intelligence] Jim Clapper has said that the greatest threat to American security is cyber. Under any argument, extraordinary access into that phone [will make it] less secure by an observable amount… You’re not just asking for a key to open a single safe deposit box, you’re asking for a key to everybody’s safe deposit box.” Hayden argued that although the intentions were noble from the FBI’s side, there would be no way to contain that kind of exploit and prevent it from being used by malicious actors. The Q&A session went on for about 20 minutes after the presentation, with questions mostly focused on foreign relations and nuclear threats.

Michael Hayden has had a long career in many branches of the U.S. government. He first enlisted in the Air Force in 1969, working his way to four-star general, and eventually becoming Commander of the Air Intelligence Agency in 1999. From there, he began his tenure as Director of the National Security Agency and Chief of the Central Security Service in 1999, up to 2005. It was during this time that Hayden authorized the domestic surveillance program known internally, and now publicly, as PRISM, immediately following the World Trade Center attacks in 2001. After leaving the NSA, Hayden served as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2006 to 2008. He is now retired, and teaches as a Distinguished Visiting Professor at George Mason University. He is also a principal at the Chertoff Group, a security consultancy.