First Person

Stop treating former CIA chief Michael Hayden as an arbiter of truth

April 4, 2017

On the subject of Donald Trump and his relationship with intelligence agencies, there’s one commentator you are bound to see quoted more than anyone else: Michael Hayden, the former NSA chief and CIA director under George W. Bush.

It doesn’t matter what cable channel you prefer (CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News), what talk show you watch (The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Real Time with Bill Maher), or website you read (The New York Times, Washington Post, or The Wall Street Journal), Hayden is everywhere, commenting on the day’s news, while inevitably being portrayed as Mr. Reasonable: a post-partisan straight shooter who will tell you How It Really Works.

But members of the media who play along with this fantasyland portrayal of Hayden should be embarrassed. Hayden has a long history of making misleading and outright false statements, and by the estimation of many lawyers, likely committed countless felonies during the Bush administration. It is something of a wonder that someone responsible for so many reprehensible acts is now considered a totally above-the-fray, honest commentator on all issues intelligence.

It’s easy to see why television bookers keep calling his phone. Hayden smiles and tries to tell jokes (like when he “joked” about putting Edward Snowden on a kill list—so funny!), he uses clever turns of phrase (he called the NSA’s massive metadata surveillance program “dipping our toe” in domestic collection), and occasionally overshares about US intelligence activities (Comparing US and Russian cyber aggression, he said: “A foreign intelligence service getting the internal emails of a major political party in a major foreign adversary? Game on. That’s what we do.”)

These days, Hayden is the go-to authority on Trump’s on-again, off-again war with US intelligence agencies, and most recently, Trump’s discredited allegation that President Obama ordered Trump Tower “wiretapped.” No example could be more perfect to show what a fraud Hayden is.

Now, it’s clear Trump was living in his own warped reality when he falsely tweeted that Obama himself “ordered” a “wiretapp” on Trump Tower. But Hayden gets away with commenting at length on the topic with nary a mention that he himself actually did carry out a wiretapping program on Americans directly ordered by a president.

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Is the media attention span really so short that they forget that New York Times reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau won a Pulitzer prize in 2006 for exposing Bush’s illegal NSA warrantless wiretapping program that was headed up by none other than Michael Hayden, the agency’s director at the time?

You can point to any of his countless appearances on television and in print where this inconvenient fact is avoided at all costs, but this Business Insider video takes the cake. In it, Hayden can be seen, in his usual folksy manner, claiming it’s “it couldn’t happen.” A president could never order someone be wiretapped. He states:

“The president of the United States does not have the authority to authorize electronic surveillance. The authority was taken away from him in the 1970s with the great intelligence reforms of that era. The only institution of the US government that can now authorize surveillance against a US person is the United States court system.”

Let’s review what happened right after 9/11 and see how it stands up to what Hayden says: In October 2001, President Bush called up Michael Hayden at the NSA and asked him what more the NSA could do to conduct surveillance in the US, despite the NSA operating for years exclusively as a foreign intelligence collection agency. In fact, the administration literally called it  the “President’s Surveillance Program.” (In other words, the president was directly “authorizing electronic surveillance.”)

Hayden proceeded to set up a program where the NSA collected all the phone records of everyone in the United States, and targeted untold number of US persons for wiretapping the content of their international phone calls and emails (“surveillance” by anyone’s definition).

The White House and NSA did all this while not getting individual court orders and initially circumventing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (also known as the FISC, part of “the US court system” Hayden references). That was in direct violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (often referred to as FISA, which was part of the “great intelligence reforms of the 1970s” Hayden professed his fondness for).

So literally every sentence he uttered there was, at best, completely misleading, and at worst, a blatant falsehood, given it’s exactly what he carried out under President Bush.

It should be noted that after The New York Times story broke in 2005, instead of prosecutions for those involved, Congress later passed the FISA Amendments Act, which essentially allowed the type of wiretapping Hayden’s NSA engaged in, as long as the stated “target” was outside the US. Congress also gave telecommunications companies like AT&T complete immunity for helping the government break the law. And Hayden was promoted.

Here’s another example of the media’s reverence of Hayden that’s just as infuriating: This week, Foreign Policy magazine showcased Hayden in a glowing report about one of his recent public appearances, titled “Bush’s Former CIA and NSA Director Slams Trump For ‘Delegitimizing’ Facts.” Hayden is quoted as saying, “What I’m seeing is a straight-out attempt to delegitimize the bearers of the facts.” It’s certainly true that Trump has taken lying and deception to new depths, but is it really Hayden who we should be turning to for a lecture of the subject of truth?

In the Senate’s blistering 2014 CIA torture report, the name “Michael Hayden” is singled out more than 200 times. He was named CIA director in 2006, after the worst of the CIA’s crimes went down, but it was his job to be chief defender of the agency in Bush’s second term when many of the stories of torture first came to light.

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The Senate’s report ends with a special appendix that is over three dozen pages long that is almost exclusively dedicated to Hayden. It is filled with his testimony to Congress, next to the actual facts showing statement after statement he made was inaccurate, misleading, false, or outright lies. Three dozen pages!

The Senate Committee documented in meticulous detail why no one should take Michael Hayden’s word on anything, yet even at the time of the report’s release, he was allowed to skate away in interviews with only the slightest questioning. Andrew Sullivan wrote at the time, “How does any media institution justify having this person comment on this report? He has lied so brazenly and so often, anything he says must be treated with instant suspicion.”

That was in 2014. Now, it’s even worse: The question of Hayden’s dishonesty isn’t even broached in any interview. Instead he’s treated a mix between the wise old hand and your avuncular, straight-shooting uncle.

That’s not to say everything Michael Hayden says is inherently wrong. Again, he’s right that President Obama almost certainly did not directly order a “wiretap” of Donald Trump, and he generally has a reasonable positions on Trump’s dangerous Muslim Ban and even encryption.

But the idea that he should be everyone’s go-to prognosticator on truth is absurd, and any interviewer who treats him with kid gloves is doing the public—and the truth—a disservice.

Trevor Timm is the executive director of Freedom of the Press Foundation, a non-profit organization that supports and defends journalism dedicated to transparency and accountability. He is also a twice-weekly columnist for the Guardian, where he writes about privacy, national security, and the media.