What Can Students Learn From A Lifelong Spy?

Mar 22, 2016



All life is like this. All life is a trade off. This is just a field of gray, there's no black or white.

Michael Hayden wants college students, tomorrow’s leaders, to know just that. Hayden ran the NSA from 1999 to 2005 and the CIA from 2006 to 2009. Today he includes among his responsibilities teaching at George Mason University. Before a lecture at Mercer University in Macon, GA, Hayden shared the core of what he wants students to know.  His words follow.

Fundamentally what I'm going to suggest is all those things we thought were permanent aren't.

How about the borders in the Middle East? Even the borders in Europe seem to be changing before our eyes. We've got a national security establishment designed to protect us against malevolent state power.

That's not our problem. We're being attacked by sub-state actors and groups.

Future leaders are going to find themselves in an environment in which they are going to have create new structures, new solutions.

There was never a rule book, there was never put tab A into Slot B for international relations. But to the degree that there used to be any predictability, any formulaic response? That's not there anymore.

You know, we Americans are very pragmatic. And that's actually a good thing. We Are highly respected for that globally, but we go into a problem set and very often say "What's the problem here!"

When in reality, the better question, and it's really the better question now, is “What's the story here? What got us to where we are?”

We're talking about preserving Syria, for example. Really? Is Syria what it's all about? Is Syria this unchangeable, immutable set of lines on the map?

If you know history long enough, you realize Syria is fairly new, at least in it's current form.

And it wasn't created by Syrians, it was created by Europeans. Just a deeper appreciation.

Another one. We talk about Iraq. Actually in my public speeches I talk about the country formerly known as Iraq. Cause I don't think it's coming back together again.

And I recommend to audiences, you want to look at a map of the patch of Earth we call Iraq? Get a map that's more than a hundred years old.

So education kind of broadens your perspective. You don't get lightning bolts of wisdom injected into you, but you do get a better sense of history and it broadens your solution set.

You need fundamentals. You really do. You need to know how to write. You need to know how to master your own native language. You need to have some basic mastery of facts. Whether they are historical, or geographic, or trigonometric. Or algebraic.

You do need to have fundamentals.

One of the things I would strongly recommend is master yourself as an American.

Know your own values, know your own political history and then bring that with a totally open mind to the international community. I mean what you have to offer that community is what it is you've gained from your homeland.

And so know yourself and your country, but not in such a way you become xenophobic, you close yourself off, you have this air of superiority. Not at all.

You take that knowledge and with the competence that knowledge gives you engage in an honest way with the rest of the world.

I used to talk to my station chiefs. Their last week or two before we sent them off to the rest of the world. And I said, "Look, when you are meeting with liason" That's our word for our partners, alright. "When you're meeting with liason I want you to remember two things."

Number One,  You're the only superpower in the room. Don't act like it. They know the first, they're checking on the second. And I think that's pretty good advice for most Americans working overseas.

I come from the American espionage community. I think espionage, secret espionage is just not compatible with our democracy, it's essential to our democracy.

What I tell my students when I teach up north at George Mason is that scared people don't make good democrats or republicans. Small d in both places.

In other words, people need some degree of safety or they begin to gnaw on their own liberties. On their own civil liberties.

And so espionage is essential. Espionage is best served by being secret. As an enterprise it's based upon secrecy.

So now the big question becomes how can we continue to do espionage, which I think I've just justified, in a broader political culture that everyday demands more transparency and more public accountability from every aspect of national life.

And so that's the conversation we are having about ourselves now. It can be about targeted killings, and how much transparency, and renditions and detentions....Guantanamo', surveillance, Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald...ah, the list goes on.

But fundamentally the issue is this: How much do I have to tell the American people about what it is my community is doing for me to have confidence that I have their sanction?

And we are arguing with ourselves about that right now. So what's the balance point?

The phrase we use commonly is we need more transparency.

I had a wise fellow I worked with a lot tell me transparency is not the right word. Not the right word. Translucent is what we need to be.  And if you think of the distinction, it's actually pretty good.

Transparent you can get to the fine print detail. Translucent you get to see the broad shapes and broad movements going on which might be enough that most of our countrymen go, yeah, I'm kind of OK with that.

In other words, we've got their approval. Not so much is put out there as you suggest that it's not worth doing at all.

I actually told one of my successors Dave Petraeus, said David you realize that the CIA now looks more like OSS, the World War II direct action thing...CIA looks more like OSS right now than it has in any other time in its history.

And I went on to say that's a good thing, David. America's safer for it. And I actually contributed to it. And Leon Panetta did, too, and George Tenet. But David, you've got to remember, it's not OSS. It's the nation's global espionage service.

So you're going to have to struggle everyday the way I did to remind not just the institution but to remind yourself you've got this other stuff you've got to tend to.

But fundamentally...what's the right word? The pull, the gravitational pull of the here and now, the present tense, the operational, the immediate, the urgent sucks a lot of the other air out of the room.

So I do think on balance that our security services, CIA, NSA and others need to continue to work very hard to make sure they have that broader field of view rather than the narrow one that would be defined by the immediate danger.

All life is like this. All life is a trade off. I just finished a book and in it is what I try to describe is that there is just a field of gray.

There's no black or white. It's all shades of gray.

And even when you know you have to go do A, you know you are going to pay a price in B, C, D, and F before too long. But that's what adult people and adult nations ought to do.

And if I could be allowed a political comment here, that's not the tenor of the debates in either party right now. This is over-simplified and dumbed down. And people are running away from what are these really nuanced choices. That real people have to make in real situations.

So that's a lesson I happily tell these students. You're always going to be trading.