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 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
America will have its hands full in the Middle East for years to come, writes Aaron David Miller.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Sat November 15, 2014
Gene Seymour says it's part of our pioneering makeup to keep exploring the universe
updated 12:42 PM EST, Fri November 14, 2014
Sally Kohn says the U.S.-China agreement to cut carbon emissions is a big deal, and Republicans should take note.
updated 4:29 PM EST, Sat November 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the Obamacare advisor who repeatedly disses the electorate in a series of videotaped remarks reveals arrogance and cluelessnes.
updated 5:00 PM EST, Fri November 14, 2014
Reggie Littlejohn says gendercide is a human rights abuse against women, with bad consequences for nations.
updated 11:57 AM EST, Thu November 13, 2014
The massing of Russian forces near Ukraine only reinforces the impression that Moscow has no interest in reconciliation with the West, writes Michael Kofman.
updated 9:55 AM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
It takes a real man to make the moves on the wife of the most powerful man in the biggest country. Especially when the wife is a civilian major general.
updated 8:47 AM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
Proponents of marriage equality LGBT persons have been on quite a winning streak -- 32 states and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex marriage.
updated 8:58 AM EST, Thu November 13, 2014
It has been an eventful few weeks for space news.
updated 3:14 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
It's too early to write the U.S. off, and China's leaderships knows that better than anyone, argues Kerry Brown.
updated 1:21 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
"How can Jon Stewart hire you to be 'The Daily Show''s senior Muslim correspondent when you don't even know how to pronounce Salaam Al-aikum?!"
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT