Note: The following interview took place in late May.
’m not sure if I’m allowed into the Green Room” are among the first words I utter to him.
“Nonsense,” comes the reply. “Nobody’s going to mind. Be my guest.” At this utterance, I’m led through a short corridor within the Hay Festival’s tent to its green room, where a conglomerate of authors, actors and academics are tucked away from the public eye until they are released unto to their respective audiences. He walks briskly over to a seat and takes his place. I comply by sitting in the one next to him. In one corner, Marlon James chats to Russell T. Davies. About what I do not know. In another, Benedict Cumberbatch attends to his children, whose immediate needs remain a mystery to me.
Whilst this would usually distract one from the task at hand, the person I am set to interview is of a different cloth, one whose impact on world affairs dwarfs that of everybody else in the room. General Michael V. Hayden is the only person in history of have held directorships of both the CIA and the NSA. His CV is practically unparalleled within the world of contemporary intelligence. Alongside the aforementioned directorships, the USAF Four-Star general has served as the Commander of the Air Intelligence Agency, Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence between 2005 and 2006, serving under John Negroponte, and was for several years the highest ranking military intelligence officer in the United States’ armed forces. The irony is, you wouldn’t realise any of this if you passed him by in the street. In spite of the militarist seating position and rapid-fire speaking pattern, little else gives away his background. He’s courteous, friendly, if direct, and more than happy to talk about his views on these subjects.
His CV is practically unparalleled within the world of contemporary intelligence
In fact, he seems to be relaxed, or at least as relaxed as one can be within the field of espionage. The anonymity likely helps, whilst those holding political office would likely be confronted in the street, he can blend in. He only needs to be known when he wants to be. Today is one of the days where he is going to be. He’s scheduled to give a talk on International Security in the next few hour. As soon as we’re settled, he gestures for me to begin, and I comply.
“Trump” winds up being the order of the day. His inquisitive stare, sweeping the room, melts into a mild facial sigh. Trump has become a trademark public enemy for the General. Throughout the year he has done what he can to diminish the possibility of a Trump presidency, even signing a letter along with 49 of his contemporaries, most of whom served in Republican administrations, denouncing Trump as “reckless” and “unfit”.
To put it simply, his view on the matter is that Trump poses a greater threat to the United States than the Islamic State. “Let’s put it this way,” he elaborates, “Trump has done more to increase the threat of Islamic Terrorism within the United States than ISIS have. They may be the ones to physically commit these atrocities, but Trump is the one who is stirring up hatred within communities and enhancing civil unrest.” Indeed, Trump rallies have become practically synonymous with racial profiling and assault. At the time of this interviews publication, it was just over a week since an African-American supporter of his was removed from one of his rallies in North Carolina, and was described by the man himself as a “thug”. Meanwhile, many Republican politicians are rumoured to be turning down the opportunity to distance themselves from him because of the potential threat it may pose to their families.
“Trump has done more to increase the threat of Islamic Terrorism within the United States than ISIS have.”
His voice narrows. “Trump has done more damage to our national security than anybody else in the world,” he continues, icy in tone. “He has massively reduced our standing in the fields of international peacekeeping and security with his rhetoric.” Indeed, the Economist Intelligence Unit has gone as far as to place Trump on its list on the top ten list of risks facing the world. “If you want the blunt truth, he has been reckless, he has been irresponsible, and he has been downright dangerous.”
In light of this, I use the statement to pivot towards the other side of the topic, what America actually needs, as opposed to what it doesn’t. Pluralism, perhaps? “Of course, absolutely.” is his response. “Pluralism is what we should be aiming for. What we need is somebody who can create a common ground between different people, as opposed to amplifying the divisions. The other candidate [Clinton] is far more qualified to do this”. Interestingly, it is worth noting that General Hayden has refused to endorse Clinton, although his reasoning not to remains confined to his person, and throughout the interview he avoided any pitfalls which could have led him down what could have been the route to endorsement.
General Hayden has refused to endorse Clinton
Earlier this year, General Hayden appeared on the talkshow Real Time With Bill Maher, where he categorically stated that, if Trump is elected, the armed forces would not be required to carry out his orders. I inquire as to whether he still held this view. The response I receive is direct and immediate: “Absolutely.”
“But he’d be the Commander-in-Chief,” I query.
“True, but the United States’ Armed Forces are obliged to refuse orders which go against international law. You are required not to follow an unlawful order.”
“So if Trump were to follow through with his demands?”
“The armed forces would refuse to act because they would be unlawful orders.”
“So there’s the real possibility of a potential stand-off between the President and the military in the next few years?”
I see. Throughout the history of the United States, the standoff usually arrived between a general playing Hawk and a President playing Dove, case in point, President Truman and General MacArthur during the Korean War. MacArthur wished to amplify the bombing to almost apocalyptic levels, whereas Truman saw no favours with the plan. MacArthur was dismissed. What we would have here is a reverse of the situation – a General is sacked for refusing to bomb. The situation is further amplified by the distance between Trump’s rhetoric and Hayden’s experience. Whilst Trump demands the return of waterboarding for interrogation purposes, “and worse”, the General claimed during his talk later in the day that he only authorised the use of torture once, and that it did not work. In short, the methods by which Trump could destabilise America are not only ones which are seen by many as morally reprehensible, but do not actually work. A collapse forged by basic failure.
I sense the need to escape to cheerier pastures. Unfortunately, the pasture turns out to be populate Edward Snowden. Of course, it’s no surprise that he has a distaste for Snowden, a man he has previously described as “naive” and a “narcissist”. “Nations, to put it simply, conduct espionage, and we’re world-leading. We spend a lot of money on it, over $50 billion a year, and the reality of it is that we need this information to stay ahead of the game. What Snowden did is transform our language from one word to categories of ‘American Intelligence’ and ‘British Intelligence’ and so on, whilst leaving out Chinese and Russian Intelligence. We cannot afford to do this.”
He has a distaste for Snowden, a man he has previously described as “naive” and a “narcissist”
“There is crucial information which we need to obtain in order for us to do our job,” he continues, “what Snowden did is help hinder these efforts. We have a sworn duty to keep citizens safe, and endangering lives by carelessly leaking documents is not how you do that. What my book (Playing to the Edge) tries to do is unpack and explain why we made these decisions in order to protect the population. We do not pursue activities like this because we can, but because we know they work.”
The position he holds is certainly a defensible one. What many didn’t notice during the leak is the number of lives which were endangered by Snowden’s actions. Alongside this, our failure to examine the ethics of the intelligence from all sides, coupled with our fixation on espionage potentially becoming morally salvageable, is a concerning one. Unfortunately, I have run out of time before I can raise more questions. Instead, we rise and shake hands, and I make my way back into the festival crowd.
So there you have it, the blunt and naked truth straight from the mouth of one of the most experienced military intelligence officers in the history of the United States. In his talk later on in the day he would speak of a “cultural adjustment” concerning the threat of data gathering from the government to the private sector, and the need for a conversation on the limits of Facebook. But what I obtained from my time with him is simple – America lies on the edge of an abyss, and it might be about to jump in.