Book review and noteworthy points from Michael Hayden’s „Playing to the edge“ (2016)

41l8oomtflOver the last few weeks I have read Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror (2016), the memoirs  of former NSA and CIA spymaster General Michael Hayden. The following post will present the general topics of some of the chapters as well as some points I find noteworthy.

Some general words ahead. Playing to the edge is a useful addition to the literature on NSA surveillance and spying in the digital age. This is because General Michael Hayden presents the insider perspective. Of course, this presents some kind of bias, but it can be seen as a balancing to other, more critical publications to which it links in an intertextual sense. Among those other books are the ones from James Bamford, Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, Shane Harris,  Diana Priest and William Arkin. Although the book underwent proofreading for classification reasons, it sheds some interesting details on the operational practice SIGINT and how hard it actually is to puzzle together intelligence and the ideas behind espionage and surveillance. The book is certainly no intellectual masterpiece but it is certainly sharp and „edgy“ (hence the title). While Hayden quite openly talks about a lot of issues, there is also a lot of stuff he does not talk about. For example, he speaks a lot about PRISM, Stellarwind and phone-data collection but rarely mentions any other program that got leaked (like Bullrun, Xkeyscore etc.). This could be due to the fact the these were developed after his time at NSA but I found the singular focus quite interesting. In general, it is an interesting book for everyone working in surveillance and intelligence studies.

Chapter 1 – The System is Down

  • The chapter focuses on NSA in the old age, before the Internet and packet-switching. It describes the paradigm change from Cold-War intelligence (one static target) to terrorism (moving target).
  • It describes the overload of the NSA data system even before it was bulk-collecting data:  „The sheer volume of collection had overwhelmed the capacity of our networks as they had been configured“. According to Hayden, this indicated that a paradigm shift was in order.
  • He criticizes the downscaling of NSA after the Cold War at a time where new enemies where arising: „NSA had lost 30 percent of its budget and an equivalent slice of its workforce during the 1990s. And instead of one backward, oligarchic, technologically inferior, slow-moving adversary, the agency found itself trying to deploy against elusive terrorist groups, drug cartels, and rogue states, all using cell phones, the Internet, and modern communications technology.“ This statement describes the motivation to reform the agency, which Hayden did.

Chapter 2 – A National Treasure

  • This chapter describes the digital revolution and how it is perceived as a problem for SIGINT operation: „technology has moved from being the friend to being the enemy“. „Signals that were growing more complex, more numerous, and more encrypted. How to tackle that?“
  • Thin thread is presented to be the answer: „software to actually detect meaningful traffic via the metadata of a massive communications stream (e-mail or voice). By studying the pattern, frequency, and length of calls, the system intended to point to the communications whose content should be explored. Of course, all data streams are different“. This can be seen as the origin of Internet-metadata retention. According to Hayden, Thinthread also included the capability to read and reassemble data-packets.
  • According to Hayden, Thinthread was elegant, but did not scale, meaning it it could not accommodate bulk-data collections. Thats why it was merged with the Trailblazer program to form Stellarwind. The explanation for the name
  • At the time (before 9/11), there were concerns about the legality of the program „my lawyers remained very suspicious of its legality“. Even Hayden said: „Put bluntly, prior to President Bush authorizing Stellarwind, Thin Thread’s intricacies and processes did not meet the requirements of US law.“

Chapter 3 – Going to War [Afghanistan]

  • „September 11, 2001, the end of the world as we knew it…“
  • The chapter describes the fusion of SIGINT with Geospatial data wich culminated in the drone program: „In early November, the US government took a shot from a Predator drone at a Taliban compound north of Kabul based on Geocell input. We were under way. This kind of activity was first confined to the war zone in Afghanistan, but then, beginning in late 2002, NSA SIGINT was married to real-time imagery and other intelligence to support actions against al-Qaeda elsewhere.“
  • „Jim [Clapper] and I were united in the knowledge that this was an intelligence-driven war. All wars are, of course, but this one especially. We had spent most of our professional lives in the Cold War. Intelligence then was hard work, but it was difficult for our adversary to hide the tank armies of Group Soviet Forces Germany or the vast Soviet ICBM fields in Siberia. That enemy was pretty easy to find. Just hard to kill. This was different. This enemy was relatively easy to kill. He was just very, very hard to find. Seems simple, but it inverted a lot of conventional thinking.“ These quotes illustrate the paradigm shift that came with 9/11, the argument beint that a new kind of enemy requires new approaches. It also nicely shows the connection of drone warfare and surveillance.
  • 9/11 also marked the rise of the preventive logic, the assumption that it is possible to predict human behavior which often is seen incompatible with central elements of the rule of law, i.e. innocent until proven guilty: „How were we to deal with the not-yet-guilty? After all, we were in the business of preventing terror, not just punishing it. Implicit in her question was a potential recalibration of the traditional balance between liberty and security.“
  • Hayden’s reply to this might be: „Far easier to criticize intelligence agencies for not doing enough when they feel in danger, while reserving the right to criticize those agencies for doing too much when they feel safe again. That’s a pity. Avoiding the hard choices creates a whipsaw effect, based on the perceptions of the moment, and ultimately costs us both freedom and security.“
  • In a funny side note, Hayden mentions GCHQ’s Euroscepticism: „GCHQ was having its own issues with Britain’s growing “European-ness.” The overlay of the European Convention on Human Rights onto British law, policy, and practice was a broad issue for the government. For GCHQ it meant additional administrative burdens and procedures to be able to demonstrate compliance.“
  • Hayden’s description of the digital revolution and the fundamental technological changes is also quite interesting: „NSA had no prior knowledge of the 9/11 attack and that we were challenged by a global telecommunications revolution. We had competed successfully with the Soviets. “Now we had to keep pace with a global telecommunications revolution, probably the most dramatic revolution in human communications since Gutenberg’s invention of movable type.” And we weren’t doing very well. I complained that our resources and people had been cut by about a third in the preceding decade, the same decade when “mobile cell phones increased from 16 million to 741 million, an increase of nearly fifty times. . . . Internet users went from about 4 million to 361 million, an increase of over ninety times. Half as many landlines were laid in the last six years of the 1990s as in the whole previous history of the world. In that same decade . . . international telephone traffic went from 38 billion minutes to over 100 billion. This year [2002], the world’s population will spend over 180 billion minutes on the phone in international calls alone.“
  • Also quite insightful is the explanation how difficult SIGINT is: „thousands of times a day, our front-line employees have to answer tough questions like: Who are the communicants? Do they seem knowledgeable? Where in the conversation do key words or phrases appear? What is the reaction to these words? What world and cultural events may shape these words?” I explained that NSA rarely listens to a conversation while it is taking place. Intercepts are collected, stored, and sorted, and then a linguist works his or her way through the queue. That’s what happened with the September 10 intercepts.“

Chapter 4 Going to War… again and again [Iraq]

  • On the WMD in Iraq issue: „But we all thought that there was a case for weapons of mass destruction. I was in George Tenet’s conference room when we voted on the now-infamous National Intelligence Estimate (NIE). I voted yes—on all counts.“
  • Hayden comments on the dangers of the politicization of intelligence: „The intelligence guy is actually most at risk when he is telling the policy maker things he wants to hear. And there is no doubt that Saddam’s linkage to weapons of mass destruction gave the Bush administration its clearest public argument in articulating the case for war. Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense at the time, has said as much. It was the case most easily articulated. It was just wrong.“
  • In the same vein, Hayden denies the rumors that the White House pressured the IC to deliver the Intelligence it wanted.
  • Hayden describes the dangers of the emotional attachment that intelligence analysts can develop when observing a target. “ Language analysts stay on a target for a long time and sometimes know their target better than they know their own families. They become part of the virtual life of the target. It can be a real emotional roller coaster. When a target has been designated for direct action and his death needs to be confirmed, it is often the same phone that is targeted, but now the communications comprise sobbing, grieving family members.“ This sounds pretty much like the issue with drone pilots.
  • During Iraq, NSA also became a warfighter. Hayden briefed his staff that they are not in a supportive role, but fighters. This coincides with NSA’s offensive turn, from passive SIGINT listening to an active role: „We needed a living, breathing operational intimacy with people we used to call customers. We had to ramp up the forward deployment of our knowledge, skills, and abilities. One senior summarized it as sending our carbon units rather than our silicon units into the fray.“
  • What I found interesting was NSA’s handling of raw data. Hayden illuminates what that actually means and criticizes those who came to him, demanding the raw data: „The request usually betrays a real lack of understanding of how this works. “How raw do you want it? Before we process it, when it’s still unintelligible beeps and squeaks?” “No. No. After processing.”“Sure.”“But this is all in Urdu or Pashto or something.” “Yes, I know.”“But I need it in English.”“We don’t translate and store everything in English. Just the important stuff.”“Yeah. Give me that stuff.”“But that’s what you have been getting. We call it reporting.“

Chapter 5 – Stellarwind

  • For my work, this was one of the most interesting chapters. It begins with what Hayden calls the central struggle of our times – the preservation of freedom in a time of terror and security needs. This creates particular challenges for NSA work-ethos: „The people at NSA (including me) come from the same political culture that motivates all Americans (a reality often ignored by ideological purists in the periodic debates we have over security and liberty) and my liberal arts education had reinforced the idea that freedom was indeed a fragile thing.“ Although he admits the importance of freedom, he explains his rationale: „We had just seen a strategic assault on the homeland mounted from within the United States but planned in Afghanistan, and we had every reason to believe that more attacks would follow. So I directed our analysts to lower the threshold when it came to deciding what constituted “critical to understanding the significance of the intelligence“
  • „By Congress’s definition, what we had been doing had not been enough. What would they have us do if not a Stellarwind-like approach to fill the gaps they were so righteously identifying?“ So what did Stellarwind or the Terrorist Surveillance Program do? “All right, blank slate: What more can we do against this threat?” We came up with several courses of action, one of which was aggregating domestic metadata (the fact of calls to, from, and within the United States) and another that effectively allowed us to quickly intercept the content of international calls, one end of which might be in the United States, if we had reason to believe the call was related to al-Qaeda“
  • What I find interesting is that Hayden had doubts about the legality of Stellarwind. He double-checked several times with his lawyers, who said that this is a really hard call. He was aware that the program did not meet FISA requirements and had reservations in front of Cheney and Bush. „I reminded him that since the ugliness of the Church Commission, NSA had acted like it had had a permanent one ball–two strike count on it.“ What follows is a very curious description of the legal basis of the program. Hayden refers to a conversation with his lawyer, vetting the legality of the plan: „The president is going to do this on his own hook,” I told Bob as he came into my office. “Raw Article 2, commander-in-chief stuff. No new legislation. Probably would take too much time, as well as tipping off al-Qaeda. Justice is going to approve it but I need your views. Can he do it? Does he have the authority?“ and a bit later „Bob thought that John Yoo’s approach actually proved too much and was unnecessarily broad, a kind of “Article 2 über alles,” whatever the president thinks is necessary to preserve the nation, he may do“. However, in the end Hayden and Deitz come to the conclusion that a legal case could be made.
  • Hayden makes a point against the argument in Risen’s 2006 Book, that President Bush was unaware of the scale of the program.
  • All actors involved seemed to be aware of the illegality or at least the dubious legalization of the program. „Addington simply pointed out the obvious: “No question that one day we will be publicly accountable.“
  • There were also reservations within the NSA workforce. „NSA professionals are very conservative when it comes to the privacy of US persons and are so legally attuned that they recognized immediately that what we were going to do sidestepped FISA. Without visible, unqualified support from me, my deputy, and the legal folks (the ones who had been telling them the “thou shalt nots” for years), they wouldn’t have done this“.
  • There is no reason for the name Stellarwind.  „We eventually called it Stellarwind, not because that meant anything, but because it didn’t.“
  • What data did they gather? „we had the theoretical ability to access a significant percentage of the calls entering or leaving the United States“ and „gathered large volumes of metadata. In the first six months of the program we built up a bank of billions of domestic call events in addition to an even larger number of foreign ones. We used contact chaining from known or suspect “dirty numbers” to see if there were connections that suggested terrorist ties to the United States“
  • What is interesting about his description of Stellarwind that although he mentions the Internet surveillance capacities, he mostly talks about phone conversations.
  • Hayden has his own interpretation of the famous Benjamin Frankly quote: „who actually said, “Those who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety” (emphasis mine on the all-important qualifiers he inserted)“. Quite interesting.
  • In retrospective Hayden acknowledges that they mishandled congressional notification, which he sees as a political mistake because it led to a loss of political and popular support, which NSA requires to operate.
  • There is also a lengthy description of the 2004 hospital incident where the continuation of Stellarwind was questionable. Gen. Hayden is particularly critical with NYT author James Risen but later he describes how NSA was eager to get their hands on his book even before it was sold.
  • In another episode he describes why it is so hard to measure the effectiveness of intelligence operations: „Good intelligence is like a tapestry with multiple threads woven into a beautiful whole. And here we were being asked to show when and where this strand did it all (not unlike a later debate over the effectiveness of CIA interrogations). Besides, almost all of the concrete cases we had were still part of current operations, active investigations, or open court cases. Openness has its limits. What they were looking for, and I couldn’t provide, was a case where a Stellarwind intercept had led to our tackling a sniper on a roof just as he was chambering a round. Anything short of that was unconvincing.“
  • A funny issue repeated throughout the book is Gen. Hayden having dinner with his wife and the phone rings with some kind of emergency. Must have been hard time for both.
  • Hayden approves that Bush took the fire after Stellarwind got leaked in 2005 and that he „manned up“ and supported NSA (in contrast to Obama during the 2013 leaks).
  • Stellarwind was a norm-change: „Stellarwind was a departure from normal… „

Chapter 7 – The Public Rights to know … and be safe

  • The general topic of this chapter is the tension between an informed public, the lifeblood of a democracy and the states right to have secrets.
  • „None of us were insensitive to the principles of the First Amendment, to the role of the press in our democracy, or to the delicate balance and inherent tension between security and openness. We just thought that some things were legitimate secrets“
  • „The “right to know” is far from an absolute. In fact, in some ways the public has already decided what it does and does not want to know.“
  • In general Hayden is critical with publications because they threaten the life of operatives.
  • But also he says that there is too much secrecy: „Journalists correctly argue that an informed public is the lifeblood of democracy. And I readily concede that people like me can be prone to keep too much hidden. Many say that the US government overclassifies things. They’re right. For years I debated whether or not I could actually say CNA—computer network attack—to public audiences. Even today government spokesmen (and even retirees like me) have to bend themselves into linguistic pretzels of passive voice and oblique generalizations for fear of uttering which arm of the US government may or may not conduct targeted killings from UAVs.“
  • Hayden is an advocate of a public intelligence agency, that it is in NSA self interest to have public debates about its actions.
  • Hayden does not favor Glenn Greenwald or Laura Poitras („agenda driven“).
  • Interestingly, on a case to case base, Hayden is against to aggressive measures against whistleblowers: „Since I left government, prosecutions have become more robust. So robust, in fact, that even I have been uncomfortable about some of them. It’s not that real secrets haven’t been revealed. They have. Sources have been compromised, and journalists, of all people, should understand the need to protect sources and relationships. But the investigations have been very aggressive, and the acquisition of journalists’ communications records has been broad, invasive, secret, and—one suspects—unnecessary.“

Chapter 8 – Life in the Cyber Domain

  • This is a chapter for the cyberwar advocates.
  • Hayden sees cyberspace as a military domain: „the cyber domain has never been a digital Eden. It was always Mogadishu““
  • „American doctrine doesn’t militarize this domain more than many other nations around the world have, but we certainly have thrown a lot of resources into our efforts, and our natural transparency and casual use of language expose us to charges that we have.“ I’am not so sure whether this is actually true.
  • The digital age is described as the golden age of SIGINT.
  • Hayden describes the early attempt to use criminal’s malware for own purposes and points to interesting double standards: „we also worked to create our own remote accesses, using a variety of techniques, like tempting targets to click on a link in an innocent-looking e-mail. At home we were all complaining about the emergence of spam on our networks. At work, we willingly hid in the growing global flow as we targeted specific networks.“
  • The „cyber domain“ is not just about espionage, its about power and conflict. At the same time the (legal) distinction between espionage and war fighting is blurring: „we knew that defense, exploitation, and attack were technologically and operationally indistinguishable even though they were separated in legal authority, funding streams, and congressional oversight—all the result of putting new (digital) wine into old (eighteenth-century, actually) bottles“. This produces another legal grey area: „What we were doing did not fit nicely into the congressional oversight structure. It blended activities, some of which were traditionally overseen by the intelligence committees and some of which were overseen by the Armed Services Committees“
  • Hayden talks about about IOTC and TAO and the fusion of surveillance and cyberwar: „But NTOC was at NSA, so it was hot-wired into a vast global SIGINT system that could send digital scouts out beyond the perimeter to identify activity and threats long before they hit the local firewall. NTOC’s 24/7 operations center monitored the heartbeat of the entire cyber domain and provided early warning to US national security networks“
  • NSA describes that it harvests hacking tools from the wind, from the Web.
  • Hayden is highly critical of the secrecy in the cyberwarfare area: „cyber ops is hampered by excessive secrecy (so says this intelligence veteran!). Look at the bloodline. I can think of no other family of weapons so anchored in the espionage services for their development (except perhaps armed drones).“
  • Cyber capabilities in 2004: „In 2004 and 2005 I would candidly admit that, to date, we had largely been spray painting virtual graffiti on digital subway cars.“. At the same time he seems to indicate NSA’s involvement in hacking the Serbs during the Kosovo war: „Slobodan Milošević’s phone ring incessantly, but there is no evidence that it shortened any aspect of the Balkan conflict.“

Chapter 9 – Intelligence reform

  • General gist: is this really necessary?

Chapter 10 – I want you to take over CIA

  • This chapter is mostly about enhanced interrogations, rendition and detention.
  • What is his position? „Would I have approved waterboarding someone? My answer was that I thanked God I didn’t have to make that decision. And, in a very real sense, I didn’t have to, because others did. Folks who have been spared that decision should keep that in mind before they jump to criticize“

Chapter 12 – A Unique View

  • „I tried to explain the history. Enhanced interrogation techniques had been used on about a third of the hundred or so HVDs that had been held. The techniques were not used to elicit information, but rather to move a detainee from defiance to cooperation by imposing on him a state of helplessness. When he got to the latter state (the duration varied, but on average a week or so), interrogations resembled debriefings or conversations. I estimated that about half of what the agency knew about al-Qaeda at that time had come from detainees of one type or another.“
  • „CIA has waterboarded three people,” I casually noted. “Zubaida, Nashiri, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The last waterboarding was in March 2003.

Chapter 16 

  • Watch the passive form: „What they’re building at Natanz, Mr. President, is knowledge. They’re building technology. They’re building confidence. They’re mastering this process and once they have, they can turn it on whenever or wherever they want to.” That was why someone was killing their scientists. And later that was why someone was destroying their centrifuges with a cyber weapon. And that’s why any nuclear program in the hands of this regime that allows centrifuges to continue to spin constitutes a standing danger.“

Chapter 20 

  • This one is about the Snowden leaks
  • About the collection of US data under the PRISM program: „In each of these cases, the only thing “American” about the communication is that it is physically in the United States and being hosted by a US-based Internet company. The target of the surveillance is a foreigner outside the United States.“
  • Hayden was puzzled by Obama’s response: „Curiously, after the Snowden revelations, there were more Bush than Obama administration officials on the networks defending the current administration’s programs“
  • Hayden has few good words for the Europeans. The complaints about NSA spying are hypocritical in his eyes. „the German reaction to Snowden was unwarranted“
  • He did not find Obamas statement, that he just has to call Merkel to know whats going on, not very convincing: „Okay, but that sounds naive or disingenuous, since what foreign leaders tell the president may not be exactly what they tell their foreign minister or defense minister or intelligence chief after they hang up.“
  • „the privacy of foreigners overseas was not in the job description of the director of NSA“
  • „I think Snowden is an incredibly naive, hopelessly narcissistic, and insufferably self-important defector“
  • Hayden does not appreciate the leaks and sees them as damaging. „Put another way, American intelligence is already paying a lot of the operational cost of this stuff being out there, but is still denying itself any potential upside to a cogent, (more) complete description of what is actually going on. The result is that American intelligence is losing both effectiveness (through leaks) and legitimacy (through its own reticence).“ Hayden argues that when you broaden your practice to include 300 million Americans (!!), you have to inform them as well.
  • „I think the US government’s program of targeted killing is lawful, certainly within our technological competence, and effective for our purposes.“
  • „Rather than just being compatible with a democracy, espionage is essential to it. Frightened people don’t make good democrats. No spies. Less security. Less freedom.“



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