Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Should CIA be targeting terrorists?

By Michael Hayden, CNN Contributor
updated 7:44 AM EDT, Thu April 18, 2013
From far left, National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen, FBI Director Robert Mueller, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and CIA Director John Brennan testify at a Senate committee hearing on March 12.
From far left, National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen, FBI Director Robert Mueller, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and CIA Director John Brennan testify at a Senate committee hearing on March 12.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ex-CIA chief says some are urging CIA to get out of targeting terrorists
  • He says the agency had to broaden its role after U.S. was attacked on 9/11
  • Hayden says CIA also has a key role in analyzing world threats
  • He says agency needs to fulfill roles of targeting and analysis

Editor's note: Gen. Michael V. Hayden, who was appointed by President George W. Bush as CIA director in 2006 and served until February 2009, is a principal with the Chertoff Group, a security consulting firm. He serves on the boards of several defense firms and is a distinguished visiting professor at George Mason University.

(CNN) -- On a hot summer day in early August, 2008, the secure Red Switch phone in my office at CIA was lighting up with calls from National Security Adviser Steve Hadley.

The Russian Army had invaded the Republic of Georgia in the Caucasus mountain region. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was frantic about his country's safety and desperate for information on Russian forces and Russia's intent.

I promised Steve some answers, hung up the phone and walked to my outer office to direct my executive assistants to "get our Georgia people up here right away." As they busily dialed phones and typed e-mails, I remember turning to my chief of staff and only half jokingly asking him, "We've got Georgia people, right?"

Michael Hayden
Michael Hayden

I recall that day now as a debate has begun about the focus of the American intelligence community and especially of the CIA. In discussing his new book, "The Way of the Knife," New York Times national security correspondent Mark Mazzetti suggests that CIA's obsession with fighting terrorism might have blinded it to the inevitability, imminence and rapid spread of the Arab Awakening.

In March, press reports said the President's Intelligence Advisory Board, a panel of senior outside advisers, had come to much the same conclusion, accusing the intelligence community of too much focus on military operations and drone strikes at the expense of other targets such as China and the Middle East.

Back in August 2008, we did indeed have "Georgia people," and they were quite good. Within a few days, the entire team was gathered around a conference table at CIA headquarters giving President George W. Bush their personal appreciation of the situation.

Unleashing America's secret killers

But precise tactical intelligence was hard to come by (questions such as where exactly was the front line of Russian troops). Recent technical collection systems had been developed and deployed for the counterterrorism target, not for tracking the successor to the Red Army.

And the fact that I had asked my half-joking question should suggest that neither the topic of Georgia nor the "Georgia people" were frequent visitors to my office.

More broadly, when asked what were the priorities of the agency during my time there, I would respond with a bit of Washington-insider alphabet soup, "CT, CP, ROW." Translation: counterterrorism, counterproliferation (mostly Iran), the rest of the world.

The American intelligence community works hard against a variety of tough targets every day, but questions about current balance and emphasis are as understandable as they are inevitable.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



The demands of more than a decade of constant war have clearly had their impact. Much of what passes for analysis today is really targeting: targeting an individual for direct action, targeting an individual for increased collection, targeting an individual to make sure he doesn't board an aircraft en route to the United States.

The National Security Agency has always had two sides to its personality: a national enterprise that meets the needs of policymakers across the U.S. government and one that serves as a combat support agency for the Department of Defense of which it remains a part. Even with a substantially increased budget, after more than a decade of combat, it should be clear that the battlefield support side of the agency's personality has become increasingly dominant.

Since 2001, CIA case officers have routinely been sent to war zones as their first operational assignment. They have performed magnificently. But the skills they have honed there are often different from the skills required for classical espionage and many are frankly bored when they return to more routine work where Kevlar and a personal weapon are not required equipment.

America's singular focus on counterterrorism has also affected intelligence cooperation with allies.

Many simply do not agree with our legal position that this is a war and others object to tactics such as targeted killings and extraordinary renditions. Although most appreciate that American actions have made them safer, the potential uses to which we could put their information strains intimacy and limits sharing.

We occasionally have to pull our own punches.

To what degree, for example, did we limit contacts (intelligence or otherwise) with the Muslim Brotherhood in Hosni Mubarak's Egypt so as not to risk the solid counterterrorism partnership with the regime?

Some are now calling these actions a distortion of American intelligence, but none of these steps was inappropriate for the circumstances in which we found ourselves after 9/11. Indeed, I initiated some of them and supported all of them while in government. Many of them need to continue. Al Qaeda's threat is diminished, not eliminated.

Richard Haass, former State Department official and head of the Council on Foreign Relations, may have put it best when he suggested that what we need here is a dial, not a switch.

And this is more than just an intelligence question. Collection and analysis usually chase after the things that policymakers hold most dear. If their view is immediate and tactical, much of their intelligence will follow.

My "Georgia people" were great. I should have paid more attention to them before August 2008. Priorities being what they were, I didn't.

I was reflecting on this when, a few weeks before his confirmation hearing, I had breakfast with Dave Petraeus. As we were leaving the table, I suggested that the CIA had never looked more like its wartime predecessor, OSS, than it did right then. That had made America safer, but I reminded the eneral that the CIA was not the OSS. It was the nation's leading espionage and analytic service and that -- much as I did -- he would have to struggle to remember that every day.

All this means that tough choices lie ahead, all of them fraught with risk, as the community deals with current dangers while also embracing broader and more enduring tasks.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael Hayden.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:11 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
updated 1:28 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
updated 6:10 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
updated 5:33 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT