The Atlantic Council Global Forum on Strategic Communications and Digital Disinformation (StratCom 2018)
Speaker: General Michael Hayden,
Former Director, Central Intelligence Agency
Former Director, National Security Agency
Principal, The Chertoff Group
Washington, D.C. Time: 4:25 p.m. EDT
Date: Wednesday, October 3, 2018
GENERAL MICHAEL HAYDEN: Well, thanks, John, and this is not a plea for sympathy, but you’ve been here for two days. I know your agenda. I’ve been trying to follow the events here via Twitter. You’ve had wonderful keynote speakers. You’ve had fascinating panels, and now I’m here with 20 minutes to say something new, interesting, and important.
All right. I’m going to give it a shot. Like I said, it wasn’t a plea for sympathy. So I actually thought seriously so what is it I can add to all the things that you’ve already covered and I finally decided, well, I’ll just come at you as an intelligence officer, all right, and begin my commentary from an intelligence perspective, although I’m going expand it near the end to a broader appreciation of some aspects of the problems that I think we’re all facing. So let me begin with the intel guy and how that works.
And I’ll begin – I was not in the room on 6 January when Jim Clapper and Mike Rogers and Jim Comey and others briefed the president-elect, but I have talked to almost everybody in the room, all right, particularly from the IC – the intelligence community – side and you recall the intelligence community assessment they gave the president-elect.
The Russians did it to a first purpose in terms of manipulating American opinion – to a first purpose to mess with our heads – check. All right. Still successful there. To punish Hillary Clinton, because he hates her. Check. To invalidate, delegitimize the inevitable President Clinton. Check. And then August-ish, September- ish, holy smoke, this other guy could win, and they began in earnest to push votes – suppress some votes, push other votes – in key states in the direction of candidate Trump .
Jim Capper says something I do not say – the director of National Intelligence. Jim, in his book – and he and I have talked personally about this – Jim says they flipped the vote. Jim has made the conclusion. Based upon the level of effort, based upon the margin of victory, based upon the focus on some key states, Jim has concluded they actually flipped the vote.
I do not say that. I actually say I firmly believe they affected the vote. But the effect itself is not just unknown but unknowable, and therefore, we’re done talking about that. That’s not very interesting. And so I go out of my way not to try to delegitimize the 45th president of the United States.
There is recent literature published, you know, within the last month that takes a more scientific look at this. I got a copy of the book. I’ve already read Jane Myers’ summary of it in the New Yorker. So I’ll keep an open mind. But right now, affected, but I have no case that it actually changed the outcome.
Now, the intel version in this is really kind of interesting. So let me just talk a little bit about this. Number one, I was at a public event – most off the record, but Bob Woodward said his comments were on the record so I’m going to tell you what he said. All right.
Bob actually felt that Jim Comey staying behind with the dossier was a bad idea – that it kind of trapped the Trump administration into a civil war with the American intelligence community. I actually don’t – on my honor, I don’t know what other choice they had. You know, they had possession of the document. They were very clear – this is the Steele dossier – they were very clear it wasn’t their document.
They were very clear it wasn’t used to make the intelligence community assessment with high confidence – everything I’ve just told you – and in fact I’m convinced the folks in the room were actually responding to what we call the duty to warn – when you’ve got information that could make someone else in a – describe someone else in a precarious situation you have to share that.
And so I’m not – I’m not where Bob Woodward is in terms of that was a bad idea. I think it was an unfortunate circumstance. But they had no choice. The other aspect I want to share with you is that the – there’s probably good evidence that the intelligence community was late to need – was slowish to warn – and when you talk to Jim Clapper or you talk to – you read what Jim writes or John Brennan writes, there was an evolution in the intelligence community’s understanding of what it was the Russians were doing. All right.
And in if the intelligence guys were a little late grabbing the administration by the lapels and shaking them and saying, listen to me – this is really important – and I think they were – I mean, this is not – this is not blame, it’s just description, because this was an unusual event – the policy guys were also late to respond.
This is something we, in the intelligence community, call the phenomenon of the unpleasant fact, right. When you – when you go in there with something that is not going to make the president’s day, that is going to cut across his policy, his preferences, or his politics, it just takes you longer to convince him, and I think – I think we saw that.
Now, I tell this story that one of the reasons my tribe, the Intel folks, were a little bit late was the lens we have chosen for ourselves prior to now to look at what it was the Russians did – and I and I use a personal example. I got parachuted into Texas in the late ’90s – ’96, ’97 – into San Antonio where I became commander of something called the Air Intelligence Agency, which is, fundamentally, the wholesale intelligence producer for America’s air force, about 17,000 folks globally – and we were, frankly, on the cutting edge of thinking about things cyber.
This never really happened to me but it’s a pretty good summary of my first month. We’re glad you’re here, Hayden – now, sit down, please – take out a clean sheet of paper and a number-two pencil and write this down – land, sea, air, space, cyber. It’s a domain. It’s a place. It’s a location. We’re going to go fight there. Which actually now is American military doctrine. All right. So we – this was a real source of ideas about thinking through things cyber.
But we had a debate down there that would have rivaled medieval theologians at a Jesuit university, all right. We had – and I remember, it was a doctrinal debate, and the two poles of the debate were are we in the cyber dominance business or are we in the information dominance business – this audience knows more than most I talk to – with cyber, obviously, being a subset of information dominance where you’ve got public affairs, public diplomacy, deception, and all other sorts of things. And we really did have serious debates.
Well, you know how this turns out, right? Because the guys up the BW Parkway are not the information dominance command, all right. They’re the cyber command. And so we put our weight in cyber dominance, number one, because that information dominance thing looked really complicated, OK, and the cyber thing was bad enough. And number two – and this is important – you can’t get more than a paragraph or two into writing down an information dominance approach without hurting some part of your body – your shins, your legs, your knees, your toes – on the First Amendment to the American Constitution, the Fourth Amendment to the American – I mean, this is not a comfortable field for Americans to play in.
So we stayed over here in the cyber dominance business. As you well know, the Russians went to door number two, OK, and most of you, I think, are familiar with Valery Gerasimov and his seminal article, “Contact, Lest War” – all right, using informational means against an adversary’s target population, and you’ve well rehearsed what’s happened. The first information bubble the Russians created was over their own population, then into the Russian-speaking population, and the near abroad.
John and I were talking about what it was they did in Crimea – who are those little green men anyway. I mean, they created enough confusion that the firm response to what the Russians were doing was much delayed. The classic is the shoot-down of the Malaysian aircraft, which, you know, when it happened, anybody of my background who knew how to point to Ukraine on a map could tell you this, this, this, this and this, and I think you know it’s only been within the last month or two that the definitive conclusion has come out that oh, yeah, the Russians do’d it.
But they created this information bubble using Gerasimov’s approach to give themselves space to work other things. Clint Watts (ph) told me that they – and Clint has studied this very carefully – I see kind of nods of acknowledgment as to who Clint is – Clint says they took this game deeply on the road in 2015 for an American exercise called Jade Helm – Jade Helm 15 in Texas, Special Operations Command Texas, a few other states. Nothing really spectacular about it, but Russian bots, Russian trolls, combining with the American alt-right media – I’ll come back to that thing – combining with the American alt-right media convinced a nontrivial portion of the Texas population, that this was not a soft exercise, but that it was an attempt by the Obama administration to round up political opponents, up to and including abandoned Walmarts being turned into concentration camps and boxcars – being seen by eyewitnesses – transiting Texas with leg irons bolted to the floor.
And at that point, you know, Clint says they could make a decision at the operational level, we can play with these guys. Because the governor of Texas responding to public outcry had to call out something called the Texas State Guard, just kind of a volunteer organization under the Texas Military Department, to watch the feds so that he could report to the Texan population that there’s nothing to see here folks, this really is an exercise and not a takeover of the democratic process here in the United States.
So late to need intelligence, wrong lens. We had a cyber lens, they had an information-dominance lens. The story evolved. We told our policy masters late to respond is just too heavy a political lift, it’s a naturally occurring event. No one’s to blame, but there are – you know, it’s not about guilt, it’s about responsibility. We were – we were too late to respond.
And then we briefed President-elect Trump who, simply because many Americans were using this narrative to delegitimize his election, refused to embrace the election – I mentioned – I began this conversation on – refused to embrace the intelligence community assessment. I began the conversation on the 6th of January, we briefed the president-elect and so on. And the president-elect’s team went out the afternoon of 6 January and promptly lied about what was told them by the intelligence community, saying that the intelligence community had assured them that the Russians had no effect on the election, which is something beyond the art and science of intelligence and something that no one in the room had said. And so you have – you’ve had this reluctance on the part of this administration to hug the problem and to do much about it.
In February of this year, the director of national intelligence was out there for what’s called the worldwide threat briefing. It’s actually a pretty interesting exercise, not many other countries do it. It’s a bit tedious, but you learn a lot as to what people are thinking. So you had DNI Coats out there with all the three letters behind him, right – I used to do this when I was director of this or that and sit behind the director of national intelligence. We kind of compared it to Gladys Knight and the Pips, OK? (Laughter.) You know, the DNI got to sing the lyrics and we were doing shoo-wop, shoo-wop behind him. (Laughter.)
So the DNI gets asked, has the president directed you to do anything about the Russians? I’m paraphrasing, but that’s kind of the meaning of the question. And he says no. And then they went down the row – have you, have you? NSA, CIA, NGA and so on, they were all asked, have you been, have you? No, no, no, no.
This is going somewhere.
So the next week, Mike Rogers – who was in the panel as the director of NSA, he’s also Cyber Command commander – Mike Rogers is now in front of a different committee, this one Armed Services, that was Intel. And he’s in front of Armed Services and he said I noticed your answer last week, you have not been told to do anything special with regard to – and so on. If you were given instructions, what do you got? And Mike said something that was really quite interesting. He said the Russians have not yet been made to pay a sufficient price, they have not suffered enough pain for what it was they did to us.
Now, let me just kind of hit the pause button there. You realize there’s nothing in those sentences about cyber defense. There is nothing in those sentences about hardening this or hardening that. This is about dissuasion, not defense. This is about – this is about punishment or the threat of punishment.
The next week, Paul Nakasone, who is Mike’s successor, is now back in front of Intel, because that’s where you’ve got to go to get confirmed, and they ask him the same question and he gives them the same answer: They haven’t suffered a sufficient cost, the implication being I can do that for you if I had the authority.
What this was – and I wrote about it at the time – what this was was a plea by the outgoing and incoming commander of U.S. Cyber Command to take – to take the handcuffs off. And they were asking for a regime of law, policy and guidance that would allow the fairly routine exercise of digital power above the threshold of traditional espionage, but below the threshold of any generally accepted definition of armed conflict.
Now, the Trump administration’s cyber chiefs, which were Tom Bossert and Rob Joyce, opposed that. They have consistently opposed it. They said we’re not going there because – and there’s a logic, I don’t know that I totally agree with Tom and Rob, but there’s a logic to their argument in the sense that, so what does move three look like? What happens on move four? And so they totally opposed it.
Both those guys were fired within a week of John Bolton becoming the national security adviser. And about two weeks ago, the administration published a new cyber executive order, cyber doctrine. And in the background briefings for that doctrine, Ambassador Bolton made a point to lean in the direction of what Mike Rogers and Paul Nakasone had said about we can actually use the cyber weapon to deter behavior, even if we can’t defend against that same behavior.
So I guess I’ll say watch this space, we’ll see where that goes. It is a fascinating doctrinal development.
But I – but I said, I want to begin as the intel guy, but maybe make this a little bit bigger. And I realize my time is limited here, so let me just move on a little bit and say whatever it is that the security services do, whatever it is NSA does, Cyber Command does, CIA does, that’s all good stuff, OK? But the Russians really aren’t the heart of our problem.
When I – I published a book, it came out in May, “The Assault on Intelligence” – double entendre intended at the end – “American National Security in an Age of Lies.” And I don’t – I don’t use this metaphor in the book, but I use it – I’ve been using it on the book tour. You need to look at this thing as a three-layer cake, OK, with a base layer, a middle layer and a top layer and each layer getting a little bit smaller than the one below it.
The Russians are the top layer, OK? But that suggests to you that the core problems are the first and second layer below the Russians. The first layer I identify as simply us, the American population. And I won’t dwell on it, but just to point out some of the – some of the highlights that I try to mention in the – in the manuscript, is that we are drifting as a society into what can fairly be described as a post-truth world. Post-truth is the Oxford dictionary word of the year for 2016 and it’s defined as decision-making based less on evidence, data and fact and more on feeling, preference, emotion, tribe, loyalty, grievance and fear. And there – that is, you know, for the Americans in the room, that’s kind of an identifiable trend within our society.
Doing research for my book, most everybody I talked to sounds like you and me, all right, I mean, we just run in the same circles. So I figured I needed to talk to people who don’t think or sound like me. So I got my brother to fill the back end of a sports bar in Pittsburgh August a year ago on a Steeler home game weekend. And I said get folks in there like you, Harry, my brother. He overachieved. (Laughter.) There were 45 folks in the back room of that bar that I had to pay for the Iron City, the Rolling Rock and the pizza. (Laughter.) My wife talked to me all the way up from Breezewood all the way to Pittsburgh on the turnpike, don’t get into an argument with these people, just ask open-ended questions.
So I tried to do that for two-and-a-half hours. At the end of it, we all had to get – we all had to leave, kickoff, and we were all going to the Steeler game. I get in the car, my wife turned to me and said I don’t believe you took that stuff from those people. (Laughter.) So, so much for forbearance.
It was fascinating. These are good people. These are people I grew up with. There were a couple of relatives in the room, a lot of high school classmates of mine. But at one point – and there’s a lot that happened and I write about it – but at one point it’s really kind of a linchpin. I actually said to the group, hey, come on, how many people actually believe Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower? Really? I used to run NSA. (Laughter.) I kind of know how this works. They wouldn’t do it, but number two, I don’t really think they could, the plumbing doesn’t work that way. What makes you think they did it? And there was one person in the front row, to general, not universal, but general nods of agreement, who went Obama – (laughter) – QED, OK? Thus, it had been demonstrated. So you’ve got this post-truth culture. There are lots of reasons for it – uneven effective globalization and so on, OK, all in the book.
Second layer is the administration and a president who actually recognized layer one and ran on it, ran on it by the way he communicated to the electorate – digital – and ran on it by the way he appealed to the electorate – grievance, fear and who continues to do this to this day. On CNN this morning, they asked me about what the president said last night in Mississippi with regard to I’ll tell you who should be scared in this country, men. And it’s part of the fabric, it’s the appeal to grievance, it’s the appeal to fear, it’s the appeal to division. And so we’ve got this layer.
And in fleshing out the book, I talked to a lot of intelligence professionals. One was a scholar on the president’s daily brief. And I – and we talked about these things. And the PDB briefer said to me we’ve had presidents who have argued with us over what was objective reality. George W. Bush did that with me all the time. We’ve had presidents who accept what we’ve told them and then lie about it, all right? Richard Nixon kind of comes – kind of comes to mind about that. But at least, you know, objective reality is part of the conversation. He says that’s not the instinctive departure point for the Trump administration. Let me repeat that: Objective reality is not the instinctive departure point for what the administration says or does.
And so the PDB briefer says to me, remember that speech the president gave to the Boy Scouts in West Virginia last summer? I see the Americans kind of nodding. Yeah, a little over the top maybe for 12-year-olds, I don’t know, you know. It had mixed reviews. (Laughter.) I mean, there was an outcry. And a day or two later, the president comes out and says, oh, no, that’s all wrong. The leadership of the Boy Scouts of America called me, they said it was the greatest speech ever given at their Jamboree. Now, the PDB briefer says to me you know that didn’t happen. I said, yeah, I know that didn’t happen. And he goes yes, does he? And that is a serious question. Does the mind make the distinction between the past I need or the past that happened?
Michael Gerson, Bush 43 speechwriter, now a great columnist for The Post, has written that President Trump lives in the eternal now. There is no history, there are no consequences, everything is calculated and calibrated on the now.
So if you look at those three layers of cake, the post-truth drift in American culture, an administration that is fundamentally post-truth, this Russian thing is pretty easy, right? They just come in over the top and take advantage.
Look, if we did what the Russians did, we’d call it covert influence. And I can tell you an iron law of physics when it comes to covert influence: You never create a division in a society, you identify and exploit preexisting conditions. So, you know, people in our professions have got to do what we do because the Russians shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing. OK? But that’s a palliative, that’s a painkiller. The fundamental fix is who it is we are, as I am fond of saying.
They tried this on the Norwegians, too. It doesn’t work because they’re not the same society that we are.
One final point. The high-friction points – and by the way, I’ve gone from intelligence to a much broader societal challenge because this is a much broader societal challenge. The institutions that have had the highest friction with the current administration are intelligence – OK, that’s Nazis, remember – law enforcement and the judiciary, you know – witch hunt, OK – scholarship – 3,000 people died in Puerto Rico – science – the earth is actually getting warmer – and journalism – read your New York Times this morning. OK? And what do those – what do those professions all have in common? They’re all fact based. Now, any of them can be corrupt, all of them from time to time are incorrect. But their only safe haven is the pursuit of truth. And those are the high-friction points we have within our society.
By the way, I did my little hand puppet up here – intelligence, law enforcement, science, scholarship, journalism, right? Got nice, all kind of comfy together. Most of my life, intelligence has not been in with the other fingers, OK? I’ve spent most of my life with these professions shooting at me here – science, scholarship, journalism – and it’s generally been about the way we, the intel guys, acquire data, you know? Controversial from time to time, electronic surveillance, interrogation and so on. I have not had a serious conversation about how we’ve acquired data for three or four years. All these folks now recognize is you’re data people just like us.
Now, we solve this post-truth problem, we get back to being fact based, we embrace the cultural inheritance of the enlightenment that we have been given, we’ll get back to this real soon. OK? But in the meantime, the data folks are hunkering down and bunkering together in order to try to – try to push back against the fundamental problems, which are in our layers of the cake, not the Russians.
The real problem we have – and I’ll end with this – the real problem we have, though, is – and here I’m enlisting your broad support over a longer period of time. The real problem we have is, how do these institutions push back against a norm-busting administration without busting their own norms? How do they do that without actually making the problem worse by getting out of their own lanes?
I’ll give you one, all right? I’m on TV routinely. I’m under contract with CNN, so’s Jim Clapper. John Brennan’s under contract to NBC. Mike Morell is under contract to NBC. John McLaughlin is under contract to NBC. Phil Mudd is under contract to CNN. We’re all career intelligence professionals. That is at least nontraditional. (Laughter.) And it may be something more.
The same thing can be said about journalism, all right? And not about not being fact based, but how about being obsessed? I mean, you can’t turn the seven by 24s on without the focus on this one issue, and there’s stuff actually going on in the rest of the world. And so how do we as a culture push back against this, OK, without violating our own norms and deepening the problem?
With regard to where we began, what the Russians did, you’re kind of – we are kind of like the fight against terrorism, OK? All we can do in the security establishment is to buy wiser people than ourselves time and space to go fix the fundamental problems. And so work hard to buy those who should be wiser than us time and space to get after the fundamental issues.
And in the meantime, do your duties as citizens as well to help contribute to the really long-term solution, which is fixing ourselves.
Thanks very much. (Applause.)