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Test of Strength

Two years later, he came home without a new assignment, but Link quickly recruited him to a job on a prestigious policy and planning staff inside Air Force headquarters at the Pentagon. Soon Link's boss, Gen. Chuck Boyd, the Air Force's director of plans, took notice of Hayden's ability to think conceptually and put his thoughts down on paper.

"He's got the soul of a historian, he really does," Boyd says. "He thinks things are explainable on the basis of how things have been. It's a scholarly bent, combined with an exceptional sensitivity to human behavior."

One day in the summer of 1989, Boyd told Hayden to go down to the National Security Council and see two men, an Air Force general and an arms-control expert. Hayden took the Metro across the river and reported to an office on the third floor of the Old Executive Office Building. Only then did he realize that he'd been sent to a job interview.

He spent the next two years as the NSC's director for defense policy and arms control, where he wrote national security adviser Brent Scowcroft's annual policy document on strategy, then two more years at the Pentagon running a policy staff for the secretary of the Air Force. In 1993, Boyd, then commander of the U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, Germany, asked Hayden to head its intelligence directorate as the United States was becoming directly involved in the Balkans. From his attache days in Bulgaria, Hayden probably knew the region as well as anyone in the U.S. military.

On June 2, 1995, Hayden walked into the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade to learn that an American F-16 piloted by Air Force Capt. Scott O'Grady had been shot down over Bosnia. The news marked a turning point in Hayden's thinking as a soldier.

Serb Gen. Rathko Mladic had been saying publicly that he would deny Serb airspace to NATO. Operations officers at the European Command had dismissed the threat, but Hayden was familiar with Mladic and did not see him making idle threats. As an intelligence officer, he had informed the operational commanders of Mladic's statements and relayed his impression that the general was not to be trifled with. But he didn't believe it was his place to voice further objections -- until after O'Grady was shot down.

"Maybe I [should] have picked up the phone and told the air commander, 'Every time I see that orbit on your morning slides, I get nervous,' " Hayden says. "But I didn't."

The incident forced Hayden to see the obsolescence of the military's traditional hierarchy, in which intelligence was seen merely as a support function. Increasingly, Hayden realized, intelligence was becoming so essential to make use of and counter sophisticated weaponry that it had become as much of a weapon in its own right as any bomb or missile. "It was a kind of redefinition of self, as a professional," he says. "It's not about intelligence successes or failures; it's just successes or failures."

Hayden's next assignment, as commander of the Air Intelligence Agency at Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio, gave him plenty of opportunity to further hone his thinking. Kelly is where the Air Force works on its plans for cyberwar -- attacks designed to take down adversaries' computer networks. Hayden next served as deputy chief of staff for the United Nations Command and U.S. Forces Korea. To those inculcated in military culture, this move sent a message. He crossed the divide between the bookish world of intelligence into the front-line world of operations. In the words of one senior intelligence official, "Here you've got an intel weenie who the four-star operator recognized as something special."

Late in 1998, he was leading a military delegation negotiating with a group of North Korean generals at Panmunjom, where talks at that high a level had not taken place in seven years. He was in Seoul when Tenet, searching for a new NSA director, summoned him for an interview. They met at the Wye Plantation on Maryland's Eastern Shore, where Tenet was attending Arab-Israeli peace talks hosted by the Clinton administration. After a relaxed interview in which Tenet asked Hayden about his views on life and change, Hayden flew back to Korea with a clear signal from Tenet that the NSA job was his. Given the job's normal three-year term and his lack of SIGINT expertise, Hayden knew he'd been handed the most challenging assignment of his career. Still, he returned to Seoul in a celebratory mood. He took his wife to the movie theater at Yongsan Army Garrison, which was playing a new movie starring Will Smith, "Enemy of the State."

The film opens with a scene in which a rogue NSA official (played by Jon Voigt) assassinates an influential congressman (Jason Robards) who refuses to back a bill expanding the agency's power to spy on Americans. From there, the movie portrays the NSA as a lawless band of high-tech assassins who try their best to kill a Washington lawyer (Smith) who just happens to witness another NSA assassination on streets around Dupont Circle.

As Hayden watched, surrounded by GIs whooping it up in the theater, he sank lower and lower in his chair.

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