This, of course, is one of the mortal sins of the intelligence world, where the role of agents is to speak their “best truth” to power, however uncomfortable it might be for everyone concerned. It takes special courage to tell the truth to a leader who is interested less in veracity than in validation, is intolerant of alternative perspectives and will take umbrage at any suggestion that he has made a mistake.
That former intelligence officer was a Russian spook, a veteran of the GRU military intelligence service, and the president he was talking about was Vladimir Putin, a leader who in recent years has become increasingly surrounded by yes-men.
Michael V. Hayden, who served as head of the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, paints a picture of U.S. intelligence in the age of President Trump that sounds worryingly similar. In his new book, “The Assault on Intelligence,” Hayden notes the well-known situation — an alarming one for intelligence officers — that the United States now has a chief executive who, in the author’s words, maintains a “routine distance from the facts.” What’s more, Hayden conveys that the president also has an abiding suspicion of the agencies entrusted to provide him with crucial observations on the state of the world.
Hayden opens the book with his recollection of walking around in war-torn Sarajevo in 1994 as head of intelligence for American forces in Europe. Observing the devastation caused by conflict among Serb, Croat and Muslim factions, Hayden pondered the easy breakdown of society. “This obviously had been a cultured, tolerant, even vibrant city,” he notes. “The veneer of civilization, I sadly concluded then, was quite thin.” His takeaway was that the forces that preserve civilized life “are inherently fragile and demand careful tending if they are to survive.” These musings led him “to the idea of this book,” he writes, “which is not that civil war or societal collapse is necessarily imminent or inevitable here in America, but that the structures, processes, and attitudes we rely on to prevent those kinds of occurrences are under stress, and that many of the premises on which we have based our governance, policy, and security are now challenged, eroded, or simply gone.”
This is indeed alarmist — but Hayden’s indictment of Trump’s campaign and presidency, and the wider forces he channels and embodies, does not quite live up to this apocalyptic billing. The book covers a lot of familiar territory and does not add much to our understanding of the populist and partisan turn in American and Western politics. However, it is striking that this jeremiad comes from a longtime insider, a Republican stalwart of past administrations and a fierce critic of the Barack Obama presidency.
The more important, absorbing and disturbing aspect of Hayden’s book is the analysis from his professional perspective of what Trump and Trumpism mean for the intelligence community. It is sober, nuanced and, quite frankly, scary as hell.
Hayden clearly feels an emotional commitment to his former colleagues in the intelligence community. At times this pushes him into hyperbole. He makes the interesting assertion that the “craft of intelligence” pursues the Enlightenment values of “experience and expertise, the centrality of fact, humility in the face of complexity, the need for study, and a respect for ideas.” However, his attempt to compare the spy’s calling to that of other “truth tellers — scholars, journalists, scientists, to name a few” — misses an obvious point about the essence of truth-telling. Spooks funnel their truths to their own cadre while engaging in duplicity and misdirection with most everyone else. This has never been an easy line to walk, and in an age when truth is suffering, it only gets more treacherous.
The intelligence community finds itself in a particularly tough spot in delivering its truth to this administration because Trump, as Hayden puts it, has “confidence in his own a priori narrative of how the world work[s].” He favors subjective belief over objective evidence and resists receving the truth from a president’s usual channels: the chief of staff, the national security adviser, the Pentagon.
The book is strong on portraying tensions between the Trump administration and the intelligence community, beginning with the presidential transition when, as Hayden writes, the Trump team entered the White House with “the air of a hostile corporate takeover.” Hayden shows how the new administration sought to assert its power like “explorers landing in a suspicious and hostile environment.” They pushed hard against the standard working procedures of career government professionals. When the efforts of the new regime were seen to be unwelcome, the White House blamed the darkest forms of opposition. As Hayden writes, “Resistance to the ways of the incoming team was quickly identified as evidence of the ‘deep state,’ a phrase previously used to describe the murky military and security power centers that secretly work to thwart the democratic will in countries like Turkey.”
Hayden bristles at the notion that a deep state — involving the CIA, the NSA, the FBI and other institutions — is combatting the democratic processes of the United States, as the Trump administration has suggested. “I have worked in intelligence for over three decades,” Hayden writes. “I know what antidemocratic forces look like. I have seen them in multiple foreign countries. There is no ‘deep state’ in the American republic. There is merely ‘the state,’ or, as I characterize it, career professionals doing their best within the rule of law.”
Despite pressures from the Trump admininstration, Hayden observes, the intelligence community retains a strong esprit de corps, support within the government and a culture of service to the nation — not the president. These commitments underpin the community’s institutional resilience — for now, anyway.
The Assault on Intelligence
American National Security in an Age of Lies
By Michael V. Hayden
Penguin Press. 292 pp. $28