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Ex-CIA director Hayden says millennials leak secrets because they are ‘culturally’ different

WikiLeaks says it has a trove on the CIA’s hacking secrets. Washington Post national security reporter Greg Miller explains what these documents reveal. (Video: Dalton Bennett, Greg Miller/The Washington Post)

The latest massive leak of government secrets — a trove of apparent CIA documents posted online this week by WikiLeaks, an anti-secrecy organization — is still so new that federal officials say they are only in the early stages of investigating the breach.

Still, the former head of the CIA has a theory about a possible root cause of the leak: Millennials.

Michael V. Hayden, who was the CIA director until 2009, said that in order for the agency to engage in the digital espionage described by the documents, the agency must “recruit from a certain demographic” — in this case, younger hackers brought on to help with these efforts.

“I don’t mean to judge them at all, but this group of millennials and related groups simply have different understandings of the words loyalty, secrecy and transparency than certainly my generation did,” Hayden told the BBC in an interview this week. “And so we bring these folks into the agency, good Americans all, I can only assume, but again, culturally they have different instincts than the people who made the decision to hire them.”

WikiLeaks disclosure exposes rapid growth of CIA digital operations — and agency vulnerabilities

Hayden called the latest CIA leak “incredibly damaging” and said it appears to have “made my country and my country’s friends less safe.” He also tied what he described as the “culturally” different viewpoint of millennials to some of the most high-profile breaches that have rattled the country’s national security apparatus in recent years.

“We may be running into this different cultural approach that we saw with Chelsea Manning, with Edward Snowden, and now, perhaps, with a third actor,” Hayden said.

While Hayden’s comments tying leaking more broadly to age differences ignores recent and not-so-recent history (more on that in a moment), his reference to a cultural difference between millennials and their older peers is fundamentally accurate.

Millennials have surpassed Baby Boomers — the generation to which Hayden, 71, belongs — as the country’s largest age group, according to Census data. These younger Americans differ from older generations in very distinct ways. They are much more likely to be politically independent, religiously unaffiliated and unmarried, among many other differences, the Pew Research Center reported in 2014.

According to the Pew survey, millennials are less likely to say they consider themselves patriotic (49 percent) than Generation X (64 percent), Baby Boomers (75 percent) and older Americans (81 percent).

But as the Intercept has noted, Hayden’s suggestion that millennials are less concerned with secrecy and privacy is off base. Another Pew poll, conducted in the wake of National Security Agency surveillance revelations the previous year, found that younger Americans were more likely to place a high value on privacy.

WikiLeaks: The CIA is using popular TVs, smartphones and cars to spy on their owners

The cases Hayden cites as highlighting this cultural difference were the most high-profile leaks to occur in recent years. The NSA disclosures in 2013 came about after Edward Snowden, now 33, said he revealed the top-secret documents because the public had a right to learn about previously unknown surveillance programs.

In 2010, Chelsea Manning, now 29, gave scores of State Department cables and military documents and footage to WikiLeaks in what her attorney said was an effort to raise public awareness. (Manning was convicted and sentenced to 35 years in prison, but before leaving office this year, former president Barack Obama commuted her sentence and she will be set free in May.)

However, Snowden and Manning are not alone among those accused of stealing or releasing top-secret information — and some of the other cases involve people closer in age to Hayden than to Snowden.

Last year, a former NSA contractor was arrested and charged with what is thought to be the largest theft of classified government material on record. While Harold T. Martin III, 51, was not directly charged with the release of a cache of NSA hacking tools, U.S. officials told The Post last year that he remains the prime suspect.

WikiLeaks says it has obtained trove of CIA hacking tools

Another person with ties to the NSA — Thomas A. Drake, a former manager there charged with mishandling classified material before accepting a plea deal — was born a little more than a decade after Hayden.

And government leaks are clearly not just a 21st-century circumstance. Before Snowden, the most well-known leaker, Daniel Ellsberg, released what became known as the Pentagon Papers to newspapers (including The Washington Post). Ellsberg, who was indicted under the Espionage Act as a result, was born 14 years before Hayden.

In a statement, the CIA said it had “no comment on the authenticity of purported intelligence documents released by Wikileaks or on the status of any investigation into the source of the documents.” But the same statement offered an implicit defense of the electronic espionage outlined in the documents, saying the CIA is tasked with “aggressively” collecting foreign intelligence overseas and being “innovative, cutting-edge, and the first line of defense in protecting this country from enemies abroad.”

Further reading:

FBI prepares for new hunt for WikiLeaks’ source

From 2015: CIA plans major reorganization and a focus on digital espionage

No, the government is not spying on you through your microwave, ex-CIA chief tells Colbert