The Absurd Timing of Michael Hayden’s Drone Campaign

Michael Hayden's media campaign underscores the selective secrecy of America's drone wars.

WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 04:  Former CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden (Ret.) testifies during a hearing before Senate Armed Services Committee August 4, 2015 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee held a hearing on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the military balance in the Middle East.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 04: Former CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden (Ret.) testifies during a hearing before Senate Armed Services Committee August 4, 2015 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee held a hearing on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the military balance in the Middle East. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images) Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

MICHAEL HAYDEN, the former director of the CIA and the NSA, has been making the media rounds over the last few days, discussing and defending some of the most emblematic policies of the post-9/11 era in an effort to promote his new book.

According to its Amazon description, Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror delivers “an unprecedented high-level master narrative of America’s intelligence wars.” The title is a reference to Hayden’s philosophy of pushing national security policies to their limits — what he envisions as the edge.

Last weekend, Hayden spent some 2,000 words defending one example of a policy taken to the edge: the Obama administration’s embrace of drone warfare and so-called targeted killing (what many describe as a euphemism for assassination). In an article for the New York Times op-ed page, Hayden strived to present the role drones play in U.S. counterterrorism missions as inherently fallible, but on the whole, effective, careful, and necessary.

“The program is not perfect. No military program is. But here is the bottom line: It works,” Hayden wrote. “I think it fair to say that the targeted killing program has been the most precise and effective application of firepower in the history of armed conflict.”

The op-ed was met with pointed criticism. Micah Zenko, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a noted expert on the role of drones in U.S. counterterrorism operations, published a thorough point-by-point analysis of Hayden’s specific claims the following day.

Citing averages from three NGOs that track U.S. drone strikes, Zenko noted that “as director of the CIA Hayden personally authorized an estimated 48 drone strikes, which killed 532 people, 144 of whom were civilians.” He also observed that the online version of Hayden’s piece omitted the fact that his current employers in the defense and intelligence support industry have vested interests in the program he was describing.

Hayden has written about his support for drone strikes before. Last year, when a CIA strike in Pakistan accidentally killed two Western hostages, including an American and an Italian citizen, Hayden scolded the press for questioning the wisdom of the agency’s program in a Washington Times column titled, “Drones Work — Just Ask al Qaeda.”

That a figure such as Hayden would express support for the CIA’s drone program is not surprising. The fact that he wrote about a program wrapped in secrets is also not unprecedented — as Zenko pointed out, at least three other former CIA directors have described the program publicly. Hayden’s piece was unique, however, in its ironic timing.

Just two days before the article was delivered to newsstands around the country, attorneys for the U.S. government and the ACLU appeared before a judge in Washington, D.C., to litigate issues surrounding precisely the kinds of missions the former CIA chief described in his article.

The ACLU suit began with a 2010 freedom of information request calling for a release of official documents detailing when, where, and against whom the U.S. considers itself authorized to conduct drone strikes, as well as information illustrating how the attacks are consistent with international law. Throughout the suit’s six years of litigation, the CIA has done everything in its legal power to resist confirming the existence of its covert, lethal drone operations in court. All the while, current and former U.S. government officials, both anonymously and on the record, have repeatedly confirmed the existence of the agency’s covert program.

“The timing and content of Michael Hayden’s op-ed are strikingly absurd,” Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, said in an email to The Intercept. “Two days before it was published online, Mr. Hayden’s former employer, the Central Intelligence Agency, was in court arguing against the kinds of disclosures he makes.”

“The CIA’s lawyer told the court that basic information such as the dates, location, and identity of those killed in lethal strikes, and the legal and factual justification for killing, cannot be disclosed without harming national security,” Shamsi added. “Yet the CIA apparently approved Mr. Hayden’s public relations campaign promoting drones and minimizing criticism of their consequences, especially for civilians killed and maimed.”

Hayden’s article is fuzzy on many details regarding the strikes he uses to make his case — for example, he declines to say whether the strikes were in Afghanistan or Pakistan. And, as Zenko wrote in his piece, “The content of the op-ed must have been approved by the CIA Publications Review Board, whether as a stand-alone piece or an excerpt from his forthcoming book.” Clearly, however, the experiences Hayden writes about include his tenure as head of the CIA from 2006 to 2009, a period in which the agency increased its covert, lethal operations in Pakistan. When he writes about targeted killing and drones, it’s hard to imagine Hayden is not including some information about the CIA’s covert program.

In recent years, the CIA’s use of drones in lethal operations has become more than an open secret; the campaign has become synonymous with the Obama administration’s counterterrorism legacy. Despite popular recognition of the shift, substantive details on the agency’s program, which is believed to have killed thousands of people, including hundreds of civilians, have been notoriously tough to come by.

In May 2013, President Obama delivered a historic speech at the National Defense University, in which he vowed to do better on drones, to provide more accountability and transparency. Nearly three years later, the issue of U.S. targeted killing, once a core topic of national security coverage, has been largely eclipsed by a host of other international crises and conflicts.

Following the president’s May 2013 speech, the Stimson Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, put together a task force to examine the administration’s drone policies and produce recommendations. The task force was made up entirely of former senior government officials from the CIA, the Pentagon, and the departments of State and Commerce. In 2014, the task force released eight recommendations, which it said would amount, in part, to “an overhaul of U.S. drone policy with a focus on improving oversight, accountability, and transparency.”

On Tuesday, the Stimson Center task force published a report card grading the administration’s response to its recommendations. The administration was given three Fs, including one for making “little to no information public on the approximate number, location, or death tolls of lethal drone strikes, or on which agency is responsible for which strikes”; another for releasing few official documents on the program; and the third for actively opposing the release any public information on the program.

“In the months since the task force released its recommendations, there has been virtually no progress and little has changed with regard to U.S. lethal drone policy,” the report said.

Selective secrecy has always been a core feature of U.S. counterterrorism policies. In the case of the targeted killing program that Hayden once oversaw at the CIA, the public has had to rely on the difficult-to-verify claims of anonymous officials and, sometimes, former intelligence chiefs selling agency-approved books. The result, critics say, has been a limited understanding of how lethal U.S. policy actually works and, relatedly, an all but total foreclosing of accountability when things go wrong.

“The CIA is refusing to provide the American public the information necessary to evaluate the veracity of Mr. Hayden’s claims,” Shamsi said. “What’s revealed, though, is the CIA’s disdain for public scrutiny and democratic accountability on matters of life and death.”


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