Former NSA chief: ‘Morally arrogant’ Snowden will probably become an alcoholic

September 17, 2013

Former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden had an awful lot of opinions to share at a local church Sunday. (Photo by Chris Usher/CBS News via Getty Images)

Gen. Michael Hayden, a former NSA and CIA chief, shared a lot of opinions during a discussion at a Washington church Sunday, beyond his thoughts on terrorists' love for Gmail and the U.S. government's approach to the Internet. Discussing the "tension between security and liberty" at St. John's Episcopal Church near the White House, Hayden criticized the reporting of NSA surveillance programs, argued  that society must make a choice between security and liberty, and took personal shots at NSA leaker Edward Snowden.

Responding to a question from the audience about  U.S. prospects for capturing the source of the National Security Agency leaks, Hayden predicted a bleak future for Snowden. Describing the former NSA contractor as a "defector," Hayden also called him "a troubled young man -- morally arrogant to a tremendous degree -- but a troubled young man."

Hayden further compared Snowden's prospects to those of defectors during the Cold War, saying,  "I suspect he will end up like most of the rest of the defectors who went to the old Soviet Union: Isolated, bored, lonely, depressed -- and most of them ended up alcoholics."

Gellman coverage of the NSA was "prejudgmental"

Hayden acknowledged that the Snowden leaks had prompted robust public debate about the extent of government snooping. But he claimed the dialogue was "pushed into the public domain by advocates." In particular, he questioned the credibility of reporting by Glenn Greenwald for the Guardian and Barton Gellman for The Post.

"Greenwald has long had a serious issue with what he calls the American surveillance state," Hayden said. He also complained about the way American press outlets have reported on the revelations, calling coverage "agenda-ed." While he said that The Post has been balanced in its national security reporting in recent years, he believes Gellman "pushed things out in a way that is prejudgmental."

Hayden was particularly up in arms about the August report on NSA audits that found the agency broke privacy rules thousands of times per year, which he described as focusing on the numerator rather than the denominator. Hayden says he asked the agency "how many inquiries were made during that three-month period" that Gellman obtained an audit for and was told 61 million. Evidently, Hayden believes that the public would be less outraged about the errors if they knew just how much spying was being done.

"A choice that we have to make"

Throughout his talk, Hayden repeatedly pushed his view that American society must choose between security and liberty, at one point saying "[w]e have to balance with our privacy with our security." His mantra mirrors comments President Obama made earlier this summer addressing the NSA leaks: “You can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience." (Before assuming the presidency, however, then-candidate and Sen. Obama described the warrantless wiretapping programs of the Bush administration as a "false choice" between liberty and security.)

But Hayden also put some responsibility for making the decisions about the breadth of government surveillance on the public, telling the audience "[y]ou're going to have to get informed, and you're going to have to decide where the box is that you want your security services to work in." Later he added, "I guarantee it, your security services, the NSA, CIA, all they want from you is where's the box" -- the space where they should be allowed to use their surveillance powers.

"There is no question that what the NSA is doing is lawful," Hayden declared. "The question is whether or not you think it's a good idea. The question is how much of your privacy, and your convenience and your commerce do you want your nation's security apparatus to squeeze in order to keep you safe. And it is a choice that we have to make."

Prefers to only brief House and Senate intelligence committees

At other points in the speech Hayden described the issues as requiring a mature dialogue, and serious discussion. But though he said that "I welcome the debate, but I want the debate to be based on fact," Hayden had a hard time defining how much the public should know about government surveillance practices.

When I asked how the public could tell security agencies where "the box" should be if they don't have the details of where it is now, Hayden responded, "In a perfect world I would brief the House and Senate intelligence committees and be done with it" because the more scrutiny surveillance programs receive the harder he believes it is to do their jobs. But he acknowledged that during his time at the head of the CIA he learned that processes needed to be politically sustainable, which required a certain level of public buy-in that must stem from a national dialogue.

At one point, Hayden also compared NSA snooping programs to other controversial programs that he says have been accepted by the public. He pointed to targeted killing, which he says two presidents have now signed off on "with some degree of enthusiasm."

However, a recent Associated Press poll shows  in the wake of recent revelations a majority of Americans oppose the NSA’s collection of data on their telephone and Internet usage. According to the poll, a "similar majority" disapprove of the legal process overseeing those programs.

Still, Hayden believes the spying programs are on solid ground, and he supported the declassification of documents by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. But he also warned that here are limits: "This is not ancient Athens, this is not a direct democracy. It is a representative democracy. So although I'm saying there are more things that should be made public, there will be some things only the committees will know."

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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