General Michael Vincent Hayden served as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency from May, 2006 until February, 2009. He is a retired United States Air Force four-star general and a former Director of the National Security Agency. Currently, Hayden is a principal at the Chertoff Group, a security consultancy, co-founded by former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. Hayden also serves as a Distinguished Visiting Professor at George Mason University School of Public Policy. NewsReal Blog interviewed General Hayden and found him to be engaging, witty, and insightful.
NRB: What is the biggest threat to America today?
Hayden: Al Qaeda. If they could attack us in a massive way they would. If they can’t attack us in a massive way, they may choose to attack us in a way less threatening but more difficult to prevent.
NRB: Pakistan and the US captured the Taliban’s top military commander, Mullah Baradar, in a joint operation. Why weren’t we the ones to interrogate him?
Hayden: The Pakistanis are interrogating him. This has happened before. I doubt that they are following the Army Field Manual (AFM) either for interrogation or for the conditions of confinement. I am NOT claiming, however, that his treatment is cruel, inhuman or unlawful—just that it’s probably not governed by the AFM.
NRB: Do you agree with how quickly The Christmas Day Bomber was Mirandized?
Hayden: You don’t Mirandize in less than an hour. We don’t have many terrorists that we can talk to and gain information. Mirandizing is about prosecution whereas intelligence is about information. He is truly a military combatant. He is an Al Qaeda combatant, recruited by Al Qaeda, trained by Al Qaeda, motivated by Al Qaeda, and continuing the Al Qaeda plan to kill Americans. He made Detroit into a battlefield of the war. We should interrogate him with the strongest tools available and not offer him a lawyer where he has the option to remain silent.
NRB: With that logic, should Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) not be tried in a federal court?
Hayden: You have major figures like Attorney General Holder wanting to do it in this venue to showcase our justice system. Yet, they talk about guilt being evident. This is at the beginning of a process in which KSM is presumed innocent. Oh by the way, if he is declared innocent what are we doing to do with him? We have already made it clear we are never going to release him.
NRB: Do you fear that KSM’s trial will turn into a trial of the CIA?
Hayden: I fear when this process gets under way KSM’s defense counsel will try to make a centerpiece of the case; his treatment and detention by the CIA.
NRB: What is your opinion on the self-radicalized Americans such as Major Hassan, the Fort Hood murderer, and Jihad Jane to name a few?
Hayden: We have seen disturbing events over the past year. This looks like the new flavor of threat to the US. Al Qaeda is a thinking enemy. They say “OK they are looking for Middle Eastern men between the ages of 20 and 40.” If you over concentrate on that you will miss other people who are real threats. Al Qaeda is trying to recruit people who would not raise eyebrows at Dulles. Prudence requires a broad view.
NRB: For what type of attack are we most vulnerable?
Hayden: One of the fears I have is that Al Qaeda will go to school on the Mumbai attacks. In the past, they have only gone for the spectacular: blowing up the Pentagon, the World Trade Center. Mumbai was pretty low tech, just 12 guys with automatic weapons and cell phones; yet, it had great political impact. A low tech attack would be less devastating but harder to detect and prevent. My greatest fear is that Al Qaeda will back away from the spectacular and start working on these less difficult to mount attacks, but still with great political affect.
NRB: Do you think these types of attacks would freeze the country?
Hayden: Yes. First thing we would do is to react to the type of attack or its target and that would have an economic impact on the country.
NRB: It seems that a lot of those self radicalized Jihadists had contact with Al Qaeda through the internet. Is that correct?
Hayden: Al Qaeda has used the web to get their message out. They use it as an element of recruitment. At some point they establish human contact that guides and vets the recruit.
NRB: Should we put more restrictions on the internet?
Hayden: The whole question of the internet with regard to terrorism is a very complex issue. Even I, someone with a career in intelligence and security, understand the 1st Amendment’s importance, the internet being a vehicle for free speech. However, there is a difference between speech and doing something harmful.
NRB: Speaking of the spectacular do we have to worry about Al Qaeda obtaining a weapon of mass destruction (WMD)?
Hayden: The absolute consensus in the intelligence community is if Al Qaeda got their hands on it they will use it- that is the real danger.
NRB: What role does Iran play in the WMD roulette?
Hayden: Based on what I know the danger of Iran having a WMD is Iran having those weapons. It is hard for me to believe they would give it to Sunni extremists like Al Qaeda. My point is that it’s bad enough for the Iranians getting it without secondary scenarios.
NRB: Do you think Iran will obtain a WMD?
Hayden: The recently revealed secret facility in Qom leads me to believe that they intend to get a weapon. My personal view is that they are determined to have a weapon. If not a weapon, they intend to be in a permanent breakout state where they will have everything in place and will be able to create a weapon in a relatively short time.
NRB: Would being in permanent breakout capability be the best of all worlds for Iran?
Hayden: Yes, that may actually be their sweet spot. If they have this capability everyone in the region could go postal.
NRB: Is there any way to stop or deter the Iranians?
Hayden: The Iranian government’s decision making process has always been a mystery. I am not sure if it’s able to have a functional decision making process. How do you deter a state that may not act as a rational actor?
NRB: Did the National Intelligence Estimate of 2007(a report on Iran’s nuclear capability) get it wrong?
Hayden: Be very careful. What it said was that we have evidence that Iran stopped the development of a warhead in 2003 and we had moderate confidence they had not resumed it when we issued the NIE report in December, 2007.
You need to understand that three events needed to happen:
a. They needed fissile material which is currently on going
b. They needed a delivery system, missiles, which is currently on going
c. They had to work on the technology to put the material into something small and rugged enough to put on top of a missile, the war head which is what we discussed in the report.
NRB: American Jihadist Sharif Mobley worked in a nuclear power plant. My fear is that people like him will volunteer or be recruited by Al Qaeda; people able to infiltrate or gain access to radioactive materials. Can you comment?
Hayden: You stated the problem clearly. It requires vigilance and intelligence. What we did after 9/11 is not sit on the goal line and play defense but penetrate enemy cells. This disrupts Al Qaeda and makes us less dependent on catching every potential danger. We should be playing offense and disrupting them rather than just figuring out who they may be recruiting among us. The best counter terrorism tool is penetrating the other guy’s network.
NRB: Is there anything we can be optimistic about regarding Al Qaeda’s plots?
Hayden: Take for example the Christmas Day Bomber. Our intelligence as well as other tools has pushed them into this type of attack. They used a low probability weapon that usually doesn’t work with a guy that they hardly vetted and trained. If they held him any longer we would know who he was.
NRB: To use a metaphor, are we getting Al Qaeda to strike out?
Hayden: It’s not that they are planning to go low tech, they just can’t seem to put anything else together because we are attacking them. Let’s say they are not getting on base very much. I want to emphasize WE SHOULD NOT BE ARROGANT about this because they are still a dangerous enemy. However, the big lesson here is that the efforts of the last 8 years have made them much less capable of attacking us. This is not a bad outcome, the product of the last 8 years not just the last 8 months.