Interview Michael Hayden

Michael Hayden

"Yes, absolutely, we are safer now," maintains Hayden, retired Air Force general and the former director of the National Security Agency (1999-2005) and the Central Intelligence Agency (2006-09). From April 2005 to May 2006, he was also the principal deputy director of National Intelligence. Hayden acknowledges some inefficiencies in the rapid post-9/11 scaling up of the intelligence community, but says the effectiveness of its efforts are reflected in the absence of an attack against the homeland. "How can you say we've not been successful?" he asks. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Aug. 19, 2010.

[What was your reaction to The Washington Post's July 2010 publication of "Top Secret America" and its reporting on the explosive growth in intelligence contractors after 9/11?]

… When I was director of CIA, I knew that we had been -- and I'm choosing my words very carefully here -- effective in our expansion. We really had -- expansion of government agencies and expansion of use of contractors. Effective, we were; efficient, we weren't. And so, as director of CIA, I went after the inefficiencies part. … There's no way we could have expanded that rapidly in terms of buying services. I'm talking about our contractor base. There's no way we could have done it that quickly, that rapidly, that expansively, and had done it well, had done it efficiently.

So what I did -- and believe me, this was an arbitrary number; this would have been in 2007 -- I simply told my senior leadership team: "We are cutting our reliance on contractors 10 percent this year. Within a 12-month period, we will be relying on contractors 10 percent less than we are today." And we really did. And frankly, it happened so easily with so few complaints, as we began the next year, I simply said, "Now, we're going to do another 5 percent." And we did that, too. And I'm comfortable we were not cutting into vital tissue by that 15 percent overall reduction.

[What are some of the problems with the dependence on contractors?]

Frankly -- and this is an extremely personal view -- the problems are fewer than have been portrayed. Again, we were inefficient. Frankly, we were bidding against ourselves. We had multiple admin[istrative] support contracts out there in which we were actually bidding up the cost, because different pockets of the agency were trying to buy the same services. So there's just a raw consolidation of contractors. So as I said, we cut 15 percent over a two-year period. But I went out of my way to say: "The problem is not with contractors. The problem is with our management of contractors."

“We are safer now. … These people want to kill Americans, and they want to kill Americans spectacularly, and they want to kill them spectacularly in our homeland. And they haven't done it.”

Now, people make arguments with an accusatory tone that we use contractors as cutouts. We use contractors to do things that we don't want to quite bear full responsibility for. That's ridiculous. That's as far from the truth as I can imagine. As director of CIA, I was responsible for everything done in the agency's name, and it didn't matter whether that was done by an agency employee, a government contractor, a liaison service on our behalf or a source on our behalf. Now, I chose that sequence carefully, because you can see my ability to control gets weaker with each layer or class of actor that I'm laying out. Nonetheless, way out there on the edge, I'm still responsible. So we never used contractors as a cutout to avoid responsibility for our actions. I use contractors because, as one of the coaches of the Pittsburgh Steelers used to say, "They were the best athletes available in the draft at that particular moment."

How do you view the accusations that have come out about contractors -- they're in the Vanity Fair article and others -- that contractors were being used for intelligence purposes, setting up assassinations, etc.?

First of all, I view those stories as having significant problems, with significant series of problems with facts. We did use contractors for some of our core work, espionage. But by and large, these were what we called ICs, individual contractors. We're not going out to go through the Yellow Pages [looking for] "Espionage Is Us" and trying to engage a firm to do certain things, no. ...

But we needed a particular kind of individual who had experience as a case officer, who spoke a particular language and had these series of contacts with this degree of cultural sensitivity and area familiarization. And we didn't have anybody on the payroll, but we did have somebody in the retired community. What's the sin in bringing that retiree back as an individual contractor for a specific purpose for a limited period of time, clearly with all the understandings? He was acting in our name and with all the caveats that that would impose on him. …

I'm going to back up to 9/11. You're at NSA [National Security Agency] at this point. How do you view immediately how your mission is going to change?

… As days went on, it was obvious that it was Al Qaeda. It was clear to me that we were going to slew every available piece of energy and equipment we had at NSA in the direction of this threat. Two days after the attack, I began to lay out to the people of NSA what our mission had become, and it was clear it was going to be counterterrorism. And I said for a while it was going to be defense. We're going to characterize the attack that just took place. We are going to warn about impending new attacks. But we will not be playing defense forever. We will be shifting over to the offense and that we would be an integral part of that offensive move.

I ended the talk to the folks at NSA by saying that all free peoples have to balance their security and their liberty. ... I said: "Here's our task. We will keep America free by making Americans feel safe again." And we turned every possible ounce of energy toward the war on terror.

And it really was almost total emphasis on counterterrorism. I know it was for me, personally. As time went on, some other things began to enter into the equation. I used to have a little saying I used when people said, "What are your priorities?" I'd give them a bit of government alphabet soup. I'd say "CTCPROW: Counterterrorism, counterproliferation, rest of the world." And frankly, when I left government in February 2009, that was still the priority. It had not changed.

There's a lot talked about how [former Vice President Dick] Cheney said the famous words, "We're going to go to the dark side," and how that has been defined by different people in different ways. What does it mean to you in terms of what was allowed and what changed?

... At NSA, about a couple weeks into the war, we were asked, "Is there anything more we can do to defend the homeland?" [Former Director of Central Intelligence George] Tenet had asked me. I said, "George, not inside the current set of guidance." So he said, "Well, what could you do more if the guidance were different?" And I laid out a certain series of things, and somewhat to my surprise, a year or two later, he says, "Come on down to the White House." And so we began a conversation with the vice president and then with the president saying that, "Here are some additional things we could do, but we cannot do them because we do not currently have authority to do them."

That was the basis of the evolution of what became the Terrorist Surveillance Program and the program that NSA used then to attempt to intercept Al Qaeda-related communications into and out of the United States. Frankly, I find it to be a very successful program. There were five IGs [inspector generals] that completed a report [PDF] just this past summer on it; there was no abuse. It was focused on what it was designed to do. But it clearly was atypical when it came to where the traditional boundaries of the National Security Agency had been when it came to communications, one end of which was in the United States. That was a change. I'm quite comfortable with the change. The Constitution defends all of us against unreasonable search and seizure. What constitutes reasonableness depends upon threat. …

Post-9/11, the spigots were open on a fire hose with money. What happened? ...

Right after 9/11, I mean, every agency can give their own gradation, but a nice, popular rule of thumb is everybody doubled down. I ended up in NSA with about twice as much money as I had prior to 9/11. When I was director of CIA, I had twice as much money as George [Tenet] had prior to the 9/11 attacks. So we had a lot of resources. We had a lot of people, too. We were allowed to bring far more people onboard.

Now, one of the issues, and frankly, one of the metrics that is missing from the articles in The Washington Post, is that they take Sept. 1, 2001 as a baseline and derive growth from there as if there was no history prior to Sept. 1, 2001. There is a history prior to September 2001. And the history is like that. So in many ways, what happened immediately after the attacks is that we were buying back capacity, buying back capability, buying back resources and personnel that we had lost in the decade of the '90s following the collapse of the Soviet Union. So to get a healthy picture of some of the numbers that appear in the article, you really have to compare them back further than 9/11.

And one of the things in trying to rebuild the system, was that was one of the reasons why the dependence on contractors?

Oh, yes. Absolutely. I did it at NSA. George did it at CIA. We all did it. It was a way to go out there and to get these capabilities into the flow infinitely more quickly than you would have been able to do had you gone through the government personnel system.

Look, even after we're kind of hitting stride and you know, we're moving forward and everyone knows we're in this new rhythm with this new level of resources, it's still far more difficult to raise the number of government employees than it is to raise the capacity by buying the service through contractors. It's just the nature of the governmental structure.

If you're going to do it through what we call, "blue badgers," government employees, you've got to get the money authorized and appropriated, and you've got to get your end strength authorized and appropriated. Those are two separate acts. The money, frankly, was always easier to get increased than it was to get end strength increased from the Congress.

You're saying end strength?

End strength -- the total number of government employees you can have at the end of the year. That's a separate exercise and requires independent energy, independent effort with the Congress to get the ceiling of your government employees raised.

That sounds critical and I don't quite mean it to be. Congress, quite understandably, is a little more reluctant to raise end strength, to raise your ceiling because that has an air of permanence about it, whereas money appropriated for this fiscal year, that's a good idea. We'll do it for now. We'll check it next year. When you raise end strength, you're buying into a future level in way that you aren't with just the money.

So one of the most critical things that came out of the 9/11 Commission in 2004 was the law that re-establishes the DNI and NCTC [National Counterterrorism Center]. How does it happen that you end up as the deputy over [at] DNI? ...

Well, it was a long, difficult summer of 2004. That was a leap year, so several things happened -- the Olympics and presidential election. And right in the middle of the election campaign -- and I don't think this was an accident -- the 9/11 Commission delivers its report. ... One of the recommendations was to create a DNI, a Director of National Intelligence. If you'd have asked me and the other leaders of the community like Jim Clapper -- I was head of NSA at the time; Jim headed up NGA, the [National] Geospatial-Intelligence Agency -- we would have said: "Oh, we don't think this is a real good idea. We're kind of busy right now. Restructuring is not at the top of our agenda." But once it was decided to do that -- and that probably is pretty well fixed by September 2004, we're going to restructure -- Jim and I and others took the view of, "If you're going to restructure, you'd really better make that new guy really strong."

If you just step back and look [at this] not in kind of an accusatory voice like stovepipes and failure to share and things like that, but just as management theory, what the Congress was trying to calibrate was something that all complex organizations have to calibrate. And it was calibrating a balance between two things, both of which are virtues, not one a vice and one a virtue. And the two virtues were autonomy of action for the parts and unity of effort for the whole.

And if you skew too far in either direction, if you skew too far in unity of effort, then the parts [aren't] autonomous, and you lose flexibility, agility. On the other hand, if you skew too far down here toward freedom of action, you don't get synchronization. You don't begin to leverage each of the individual pockets of excellence.

What this was, was moving that scale for the American intelligence community in the view of Congress more in the direction of unity of effort for the community, less freedom of action. It was based somewhat on a misdiagnosis.

George Tenet was actually a very strong centralizing force. If you met George by personality, George met with the president six days out of seven, nontrivial attribute inside the federal government. And George was head of the CIA. And that "C" in 2004 and still in 2010, that "C" stands for "Central." He was powerful by virtue of the fact that not just because he was head of the community, but because he's head of the Central Intelligence Agency.

And what did the legislation say? Whatever the DNI is, he's not going to be the head of the CIA. In other words, in a broad effort to strengthen the center, we were taking away from the center the one thing that most of us who knew the inside-baseball story believed gave the center great strength: the CIA.

So there was always the danger that you were going to end up with the DNI detached from that agency with a lot of responsibility to create that unity of effort and far fewer tools to actually accomplish that task. And guess what? That's pretty much what's happened over the past five years, and we saw that play out this past summer with the president deciding to make a change between Dennis Blair and Jim Clapper.

So the system has been pretty flawed as far as you're --

The system can work, but the system relies to a surprising degree on personal relationships rather than statutory authorities.

A lot of people told us that it was flawed from the beginning: The power wasn't there. The DNI didn't have the stuff that everybody else had. There were problems in how they could control how the money was spent. And then there was conflict from day one built in with the DoD [Department of Defense]. How did all of those problems play out?

They played out one at a time. The line of confrontation that you describe between the DNI and the DoD [is] probably overdrawn. There's a lot more collaboration than most people give it credit for. This is a reasonably collaborative community, but the law and the intent of Congress was that we wanted more glue; we wanted it tighter. And the actual tools that the DNI had to do that when one of the pieces was pushing back were limited. So we put a great premium on its power of persuasion, its building a spirit and a culture of collaboration rather than being directed.

And frankly, that can work. It requires great human art and skill on the part of the DNI and a generally recognized, close personal relationship between the DNI and the president. That's where he gets his juice. He doesn't get the juice from the law. He gets his juice from that relationship. And if he doesn't have it, then he's really more than a brick shy of a load.

And the effect on the intelligence community?

The effect on the community is not chaos. Again, it's a reasonably collaborative community. But you might not be what you might have been.

It doesn't accomplish what 9/11 Commission asked for.

It doesn't do it as quickly or as completely, right.

Tell me a little bit about the history. So you guys start out. You've got like, 11 people?

Yeah. We're holed up in one office down in the Old Executive Office Building. We cover the walls with butcher paper and said, "Well how about this organizational structure?" I mean, we really did, and then tried to lay it out.

Frankly, I thought we did reasonably well out of the gate. We got it up and running. I mean, John Negroponte was a recognizable figure. Just his persona and the job gave it some significant throughway. President Bush was really interested in intelligence, and not just in the product but in the process. And I mean that in a very positive, healthy way for the community. So that gave Ambassador Negroponte the kind of juice that I was referring to before.

I think we brought in some really good people to lead the community. But Ambassador Negroponte was there for what? A year and a half? And then he moved on. Mike McConnell came in. Mike is a wonderful career intelligence officer, a friend of mine. I think he and I collaborated pretty well. Although, fair to say, the DNI and the DCIA position by nature are going to have some friction points. But I think we handled those very well.

Look, to give you a sense though, as to how hard this is. I was a deputy DNI, okay? This DNI job is really hard. It's got two tasks. Be senior intelligence adviser to the president, and he's responsible for the smooth function of the community. Let me tell you, that senior adviser job to the president, that's full-time day work. That is all consuming. And so it very often would fall to the deputy to handle the other parts of the portfolio.

I was John Negroponte's deputy for about a year and then I was selected to be the head of CIA. It was a better part of a year and a half before another deputy was named. And the life of the DNI, okay, the five plus years that we've actually had a director of National Intelligence, the deputy position has been vacant for about 50 percent of that five-plus-year life. That's a big deal. That actually matters. And until we made this harder than it should have been by those steps in implementation, but lack of steps --

But meanwhile, [the intelligence community] grows tremendously. …

Yeah. I would never argue that the ODNI, the Office of the DNI, hasn't grown a bit too large. [But] I would really be careful [about saying] how much too large. What's really the right number? What is it that you want it to do? If you check the legislation, all right, the functions that the DNI was supposed to absorb that were already being performed and the number in the law of new people the DNI was allowed to hire, that's today's DNI. That's it. Now, is it bigger than it should be? Yeah, probably, but again, I'd be reluctant to just pull this number out of the air in the abstract and say: "You see? It's just another useless layer of bureaucracy."

You really need to kind of look under the numbers. What is it you have these people doing? Are those functions necessary? Are they necessarily done by the DNI? Those are all fair questions.

By the way, I know for a fact Jim Clapper has asked me those questions as we speak and wants to look at it. But I'd be shocked if the DNI ends up some large fraction smaller in six months than it is today. They'll be streamlining, all right? But we're not talking order of magnitude changes here.

We've talked to some congresspeople, some senators. Here you have a community that the press has no ability to look at very well, and … the public knows very, very little about it. So this idea of oversight ends up in congressional hands. A lot of people have said they don't perform this function very well, and there are a lot of people in Congress that sort of say, "We have no ability to perform the mission well." So what is the oversight? How important is it? Put this into perspective for us.

Thank you for that last comment about putting into perspective. Let me, if I can, before I jump into Congress, put it into a broader cultural perspective. We're living inside a political culture that demands more transparency and more accountability from every element of public life each day that passes. Whether you're the CIA or the world's greatest golfer, our political culture wants accountability and transparency and to watch you do it.

I teach a class across the river at George Mason [University]. I begin the class with laying out this kind of cultural framework and then remind the class that the nation's espionage services can only survive in a culture of secrecy. So how do we reconcile? How do we resolve successful intelligence services that demand secrecy for their success and a political culture that demands transparency and accountability from every element of public life? And I throw out a couple of suggestions.

And one is the press. Now, Lord knows, if we had time to talk about WikiLeaks, I'd go into high dudgeon for you about how bad a thing that was.

But I also recognize the press performs a legitimate oversight role with what the intelligence community does.

More directly, Congress performs an oversight role over what the intelligence community does. I've been fond of saying that I wish I could tell 300 million Americans exactly what we do for them. I really do, but I can't. So I'm going to have to settle for 22 representatives and 15 senators. And that's going to be the methodology; that's going to be the mechanism by which we begin to fulfill this transparency and accountability responsibility that our political culture demands.

Now, that's the importance of congressional oversight. That's how critical it is to the success of the American intelligence community. And I don't think anybody [who has been] involved with it for the past five years thinks it's going swimmingly on either side of the ball, the executive branch or the legislative branch. There are a lot of things that make it hard.

One is, and I'm going to maybe start out with giving credit where credit's due, nobody gets a bridge built or a road paved in their home district by ... being a member of the HPSC, the House Permanent Select Committee, or the SSCI, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. You're doing this out of a love for the subject matter and a love for the country. So give full credit to all the people who are on those committees. This is a labor of love and a measure of sacrifice. So that's one reality.

The second reality is this is really hard business. It is incredibly complicated. ... There were 16 agency chiefs, and each of those agencies were separate for a reason. They're actually different. They actually did different things. They all come under this congressional oversight regime, these two committees. Now, imagine the complexity that these members of Congress have to master of this community, as heterogeneous and as complex as it is. And as you pointed out earlier, there really isn't a common knowledge out there of this committee. These committee members learn about these organizations after they've come onboard, so there is a steep learning curve. It's a very obscure subject, at times very technically complex, and makes it very difficult.

Finally, and this is really important, I used to go up there on the Hill and testify. And certainly during my time as director of CIA, you may recall, most of that was during a period of divided government. Those are full-contact hearings that I had on both the House and the Senate side, particularly the House side. And I used to say that when I went up there, I sat between tectonic plates, OK, and everyone said, "Yeah, yeah, sure." And I said: "No, no, I sat between two sets of tectonic plates, OK? One set was labeled 'Republican,' and [one set was labeled] 'Democrat.'" And of course, that really got gamey during the last two years of the Bush administration when the other party controlled both houses. ...

But frankly, those weren't the big tectonic plates, the ones labeled "Republican" and "Democrat." The big tectonic plates were the ones labeled "Article 1," "Article 2"-- the fundamental, unreconciled differences between executive and legislative authority that Jimmy Madison wrote into that document. He knew he wasn't resolving it. He knew he was building contention between the legislative branch and the executive branch.

There is no part of the executive branch that more exists on the outer edge of executive prerogative than the American intelligence community -- the intelligence community, CIA, covert action. My literal responsibility as director of CIA with regard to covert action was to inform the Congress -- not to seek their approval, to inform.

So again, back to the premise: Day in and day out, you're out there on the outer edge of executive prerogative talking to a branch of government very jealous of their own prerogatives. It doesn't take hideously contentious issues to make this fairly interesting dialogue when you're up there on the Hill, and its origins go all the way back to those Virginia planters who wrote the Constitution and the Federalist Papers.

But are there dangers there that they really don't have the ability to really provide the oversight that other parts of government have?

It's a difficult topic. It is difficult for the members to master. It is sometimes overly simplified to: "You're not telling me. You're hiding the ball on me. You mislead us. You mislead us all the time to select a quote." I suppose there are sins on the side of the intelligence community from time to time, but I have to tell you, it's hard for me to figure out the upside of hiding the ball from Congress. Some of the things we do on the outer edges of executive prerogative are pretty edgy in their own right. They stand a pretty high probability of sometimes not succeeding.

I'm a career Air Force officer. We have a saying in the Air Force: "If you want people to be with you at the crash, you've got to put them on the manifest." And so I was always of the view to almost leave no stone unturned when you're up there briefing the Hill. You want to get them in the circle, and you want them well aware of what it is you're doing. Now, all that said, there are times when you're directed by the president quite lawfully, because the two articles that talk in the law about what it is you have to tell Congress begin with, "Consistent with the protection of sources and methods." So again, you're part of the executive branch. You are sometimes limited in what you can tell the Hill. ...

Dana [Priest] talks about "Super Users," the fact that there are very few people that know all of the programs and the fact that it's impossible for them, even within the system, to provide real overview. What's your point of view on that?

Look, there's a very incredibly complex community, really high-end, legitimately compartmented in many areas. Now, we've had a great move to decompartmentalize information, and that's been great. We saw the dark side of that with WikiLeaks. It appears one individual apparently had access to a lot of information. But generally, we have decompartmentalized, but a lot remains inside compartments for legitimate security and operational reasons. I was in government service for 40 years; most of that was in intelligence. I would never claim to you that I knew all the compartments.

I could not possibly claim that I knew everything that was going on. I think someone said in his testimony that "Only God knows all the special-access programs." I think that's true. Is that a good thing? Probably not. Can we avoid it? Probably not. Can we make it less of a burdensome problem it is today? Probably. And we need to work on that. But this is just a reflection of complexity, not any vice.

But that complexity is a vice, in fact, [in] that if it prevents us from figuring out the threat, if one arm doesn't talk to another arm, if multiple programs are doing the same thing unbeknownst to each other, that gets us into a very bad place.

I'm far more comfortable with the arguments that you just described in terms of efficiency. In terms of effectiveness, by and large, and I've never claimed perfection here, but by and large, my comfort level is better. The efficiency question, however, is another matter altogether. And in fact, a lot of what Dana and Bill Arkin pointed out in their article had to do with inefficiencies.

So the redundancy is a truth?

Oh, no. The redundancy is a truth. From time to time, the redundancies are also virtues, so one has to be careful if one goes about gathering up efficiencies. Let me give you a model. It has to do with intelligence collection and intelligence analysis, OK? If I'm over here trying to manage intelligence collection, and I start saying words about ending duplication, unity of effort, economy of scale, with regard to collection, you kind of go, "Yeah, cool." Now I go to my other hand here and do intelligence analysis. And I go unity of effort, economies of scale: "Whoa, I'm not so sure I want that over here. I want redundancy. I want competition. I want built-in inefficiency when it comes to analysis, because I want the benefit of a range of views." You just can't treat intelligence as if it were a business proposition. Raw efficiency is rarely a pure virtue. …

One of the products of this are the fusion centers. There are fusion centers all over the country. Some other people have said that there are a ridiculous number of fusion centers, that fusion centers became the thing that the best kid in the class got and so everybody wanted one. And that is another source of the huge amount of waste.

One man's waste is a different point of view to another individual. And I don't disagree that there are probably too many. I've got that. But why? Because they're doing some pretty good work, and anybody who can get one wants to have one.

Now, the discipline might be someone above saying: "Guys, you don't get your own. You've got to rely on this more central activity." But the good news is they're successful enough that people actually want to have them. They're actually doing what it was we designed them to do. Back to my point. We've been effective; I'm convinced of that. Efficient? Another question. And that really might be a learning point, the teaching point to come out of the Post's series of articles. ...

People will describe going into NCTC, and they'll have seven servers. They'll have an enormous amount of information coming in, and it's not connected. It's all over the place. One of the people we talked to was Congressman Brad Miller (D-N.C.), [the chair of the House Committee on Science and Technology's Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight], who's very vocal about all that, and he goes, "How can you share information when you don't even know how much there is of this information?" …

We have not done well. I mean, that's too harsh of me. We have not done as well as we wanted to. We have not done as well as we should have. I've got that. And better management, more focus, greater attention, that will all help. But there are issues beyond that I've already mentioned. Doing this within government procurement cycles is devilishly difficult because it just slows you down, and everybody seems to get a vote. Beyond that, there are clear policy questions that the congressmen and anyone else who wants to [can] kind of just create this one big tidal pool of all available information to consider and relieve the intelligence community of.

A lot of this information is cabined off because of privacy concerns, not because of anybody's bureaucratic interest. No, I don't want all 90,000 people who have access to this system to this cabin of information because of privacy concerns. How much law enforcement data do you want the officers at the CIA to know? How much playing with law enforcement data do you want the CIA and workforce to do knowing that if that law enforcement data becomes part of a court case, the CIA playing with the data and its alternative explanations for the data will become part of the discovery process for the defense attorney?

I mean, these are not trivial considerations. How much of TSA's [Transportation Security Administration's] passenger information, between you and me, do you want sloshing around the National Counterterrorism Center available to every analyst who works there? These are real questions. And everyone will complain about the lack of sharing until you have an incident in which somebody's privacy has been legitimately violated and at which point there will be the rending of garments quite dramatically as to how this could possibly happen. ...

Some people say the Christmas bomber incident is very significant; other people say, "Hey, there's always going to be holes in the net, and this was one example of it, but in the end, the public stood up and pounced on this guy." … But does this say or tell us anything about NCTC's ability to connect the dots? The Senate Intelligence Committee report said it was not adequately organized with the resources needed to accomplish the job. They blamed to some extent that this was still a problem with NCTC.

Yeah, I read the Senate report. I've talked to folks afterward as to what exactly happened. A couple of cautions. Every failure does not necessarily mean the system failed, and we need to really keep that in mind. Otherwise we'll be going around blowing things up here every time we feel somewhat more threatened. ...

But if you step back and look at the nature of this attack and compare it to the nature of other attacks attempted against the homeland -- 9/11; the [1995] Bojinka plot, the airliner plot in the Pacific; the 2006 wide-body plot between Great Britain and North America -- well, this is very different.

This is somebody that Al Qaeda hardly knew; that Al Qaeda hardly trained; that Al Qaeda hardly vetted. And all those are because they knew if they hugged him much longer, we would detect him. And in fact, we probably should have, even with the limited amount of hugging that was going on. And they launched him against us with a weapon that had an incredibly low probability of success. In a very meaningful way, all of those facts, all of those realities, are a reflection of the success of American intelligence. This was overall a very low probability shot by Al Qaeda against us. We didn't detect it. Shame on us. We need to do better. But in its totality, that's different than some of the threats we've had to face up to the past nearly nine years.

That's good news, and that is a reflection of intelligence and operational success. We need to know that. The other thing I pointed out, I was actually on one of the morning talk shows, a Sunday morning show right after New Year's about this, and the thing I pointed out was something about expectations, that this is a human activity, and at the end of the day, the information was shared, and in retrospect, honest men could say, "Yeah, we should have knitted this together in a way that said put him on the list." OK. But it was human failing at the end of the day.

There will always be human failing because this is inherently human activity. One administration spokesman pointed out that we're going to take steps to assure this never happens again. The spokesman is a friend of mine. I just politely said: "'Never' is a big word and a very long time. I would not use the word 'never' to describe this. You're setting up false expectations. This is a determined enemy. We do our very best against them, but to give absolute guarantees against such an enemy, that's totally foolhardy."

But the allegation that it's beyond the human problem, that the technology the public expected, that the things that the 9/11 Commission brought up nine years ago they said were broken were fixed, one of the major things they focused on was computer problems, lack of communication.

But I mean, in the real world, with real people and real threats and a learning enemy, all right, this is always a race. This is never a state that you arrive at and just kind of go like that.

And here's an adaptation. The Senate committee criticized NCTC with regard to allocation of resources. Again, an intensely human activity. As I understand it, what Mike [Leiter, Director of NCTC] did was to commit resources to focusing on Al Qaeda and Yemen as Al Qaeda and Yemen and had the center of gravity of this analytic workforce looking at Al Qaeda and Yemen as a threat to Yemen, and as a threat to the region. Again, perhaps a failure in imagination not unlike the summer of 2001, that Al Qaeda in Yemen may be planning an attack against the homeland. I've got it. Is that an error? Yeah. Is it a failure? OK, if you want to call it a failure. But you don't need to blow up the system; you need to adjust the system to now reflect that.

Hey, by the way, this is the first time a franchise ever attacked the American homeland. Every other attack against the American homeland, operational or planned, was done by Al Qaeda main along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. They've changed their tactics. Well, why did they change that? Well, maybe Al Qaeda main isn't what it used to be. I wonder why that is. Well, that's a reflection of American operational and intelligence success.

Look, it sounds like I'm being apologetic for folks here, and I don't mean to be. But I do think [the responsibility of] senior leadership in the country -- and if the political leadership isn't going to do it, maybe some former intelligence leadership needs to do it -- is to describe the art form here and the limits of the art form. Even if we're at the top of our game, it does not guarantee that bad things won't happen to America.

And let me go further. Let's fast-forward now from Christmas to Times Square. You want to call that a failure? If you call that a failure, tell me, what are you willing to accept in terms of the behavior of the American intelligence community? How intrusive are you comfortable with allowing it to be to guarantee that the off SUV will never enter Times Square again? And the answer is, I don't know that you guys can prevent that. Or in a sense, you can never guarantee me that you could prevent that. Yeah, that's right.

I want to get your view on another point the Senate made. They also said that no one agency saw itself as responsible for tracking and identifying all terrorism threats.

This is a more realistic criticism. What's happened in my view -- and again, prefacing I'm more than a year and a half out of government -- terrorist tracking tied to the other databases that build on or derive from ties is an incredibly complex activity. Because it is, we have subdivided the tasks. I think it's a fair statement to say that although people were focused on their particular task, they did not have a healthy understanding of what was happening to the left and to the right of them in the intelligence process and therefore may have made some false assumptions about who was doing what. I think that's fair, and something that really needs to be tended to. Somebody has got to have a God's-eye view of this entire process. It cannot just be a series of discrete steps in which someone is not ultimately responsible.

And so the point that what we're seeing here were systemic problems that were the same systemic problems that we saw after 9/11.

Oh, no. If they were, we are multiple octaves away from where they were nine years ago. There are differences of degree here so great that they turn into differences of kind in terms of what we might do to fix these particular problems. This is not like 2001. I often draw this story. The attacks of 2001, [but] how about the attacks of 2006? That's the wide-body coming across the Atlantic to a North American destination. I make the point that if that plot is hatched in 2001 with both the collection and level of the American intelligence community, with our level of foreign cooperation, everything being like it was in 2001, those wide-bodies go down; those passengers all die. But we owned that plot. We knew what was going on thoroughly.

In fact, the only dispute we had was with our British allies. How quickly are you going to arrest these guys? That's how good our knowledge was. That's really different. So it's a false premise, and it leads to false conclusions to say this is just like 9/11, none of this working. No, no, no. A lot of it is working, but it's a tough, knowing enemy. It's a human activity, and we probably have got to do some things better.

[So looking at Dana's story, the amount of money spent and everything that has been developed], in the end, are we safer?

Yes. Absolutely. We are safer now. … Anybody in my business would say … [we're] ever not yet safe enough. And that's certainly true. But we are safer. We really are. Just look at the history. It's not for want of trying. It's not because they've lost their evil purpose. These people want to kill Americans, and they want to kill Americans spectacularly, and they want to kill them spectacularly in our homeland. And they haven't done it. There's not been a successful attack against the homeland from outside the homeland since 9/11.

We've had Fort Hood, which is another whole discussion as to what that means and the drive-by shooting at the recruiting center in Arkansas, which is another discussion. But those are homegrown and much more difficult for us to deal with for reasons that should be clear. But of the kind of threat that Al Qaeda wants to mount against us, that attack against iconic targets in the homeland with mass casualties, they haven't done it. How can you say we've not been successful? ...


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Posted January 18, 2011; updated September 4, 2011

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