When will the NSA’s powers be restrained? According to the agency’s former director Michael Hayden, not any time in the near future.
Hayden, who spoke on Thursday at a cybersecurity forum hosted by the National Military Family Association, is famously expansive on national security concerns—and sanguine about the NSA’s effectiveness. In an exchange regarding the agency’s “systemic overcollection” of data, Hayden argued that those outraged by the practice probably misunderstand it and likely overestimate the extent of the agency’s transgressions. He also noted that he finds “curious” debates over the transparency of FISA courts, which hold secretive proceedings to evaluate government requests for surveillance. Critics have dismissed the courts as “rubber stamps” for the government, noting that they approve virtually all applications. But the courts dispute the label, defending the approval record by saying that they often require changes before giving the government the OK. Hayden says there’s another reason to like the present system.
“What’s odd about the FISA court?” Hayden asked. “We have it. No other Western democracy puts these questions in front of a court.”
I asked if he felt that FISA courts were a privilege.
“Yes,” he told me. “It’s an unusual thing already.”
Hayden also dismissed skepticism that the NSA has truly foiled dozens of terrorist attacks. According to Hayden, asking how many attacks have been stopped is “an insufficient metric” by which to estimate the agency’s effectiveness. In the same vein, Hayden noted “the metadata thing”—the NSA’s furtive collection of vast amounts of information about communications—is not particularly intrusive.
“If we weren’t doing that,” he asked, “what else gives you a warm feeling about not having a domestic plot? And my thought is, every other answer to that is more invasive.” Still, Hayden understands why “some people object to it ... given some other actions of the federal government in the last couple years.” (Hayden has been harshly critical of President Obama—off the record.)
I asked Hayden one final question about the future of the NSA. Would the organization continue its data collection unimpeded, I wondered, or will Congress actually cut back on its scope and power?
“I don’t know,” Hayden responded. “Congress has it within its authority, but this is one area where I don’t think the executive’s gonna voluntarily reduce [it].”
In other words, it appears Hayden sees no clear end in sight for the agency he once ran—and still so fiercely defends.