The Best Defense

Six things that worry the former director of the CIA, Gen. Michael Hayden

My CNAS colleague Amanda Pfabe wondered what was on the mind of former CIA director Michael Hayden. This is what she found.

Personally, I wish the general worried a bit more about the damage done to America by the government's embrace of torture as a policy under President Bush.

By Amanda Pfabe
Best Defense All American roving correspondent

Retired Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA, spoke the other day at Johns Hopkins University's Rethinking Seminar about six security concerns that would keep him up at night were he still in the government. All six, he said, have a degree of imminence to them:

No. 1: Proliferation (specifically concerning Iran)
Hayden noted that answering questions pertaining to Iranian nuclear capabilities is easier to do than articulating how the Iranian government makes decisions. No one seems to know who or what influences policy. The confusion and mixed messages coming from Tehran surrounding the detention of the three American hikers, two of whom are still being held in Iran, in 2009 underscores the fact that Iran is a fully functioning society with a fully dysfunctional government.  

His scary bottom line: Iran's quest to obtain nuclear weapons is a means to deterring the United States. Attempts to affect their nuclear capability, such as Stuxnet, will simply make them more committed to that quest.

No. 2: China
Hayden was quick to explain that China is not necessarily an enemy, as there are "logical non-heroic policies available to both sides" that can prevent conflicts. However, China's recent international behavior, such as the Chinese fishing boat's collision with Japanese coast guard vessels, can be described as triumphal and akin to that of a teenager whose strength has outstripped his judgment, experience, and wisdom. Several structural problems, including its uneven distribution of wealth, gender imbalance, and environmental disasters, promise to cause growing pains for China as it continues its ascent. Moreover, the legitimacy of the Communist Party governance is based on an unsustainable ten percent GDP growth per year. 

His interesting bottom line: China recognizes its structural problems, whereas the United States is quick to overlook them and focus on its strengths. 

No. 3: Cyber
Cyber joins land, sea, air and space as the newest domain. This man-made domain, though, is based on technological and entrepreneurial principles that make it inherently insecure. Hayden compared the geography of the Internet to that of the north German plain -- inherently indefensible. 

His worrisome bottom line: The advantage goes to the attacker in cyber space. Fundamental restructuring is needed to correct cyber space's vulnerabilities. 

No. 4: Mexico
Over 28,000 people have been killed since President Calderon initiated his war against the cartels. Currently, the United States' assistance has been through law enforcement agencies. Hayden argued that Mexico's criminal gangs need to be treated as insurgents -- even though it is not their aim to overthrow the government -- and the successful playbook used in Colombia needs to be applied to Mexico, which is pretty much what Bob Killebrew and Jennifer Bernal recommended in their recent CNAS report. Furthermore, the relationship between Mexican and U.S. intelligence officers need to be recalibrated in order to increase collaboration. 

His interventionist bottom line: Mexican drug cartels need to be treated as insurgents and the United States needs to send military assistance.

No. 5: Terrorism
Hayden noted the continuity in counterterrorism efforts between the Obama and Bush administrations, even in such basics as defining it as a global war against al Qaeda and its affiliates. He argued that the dearth of senior al Qaeda leaders caused by targeted attacks in Pakistan stops the organization from committing its signature attacks, in which the operation is complex, the target is iconic and the scale of destruction is massive, such as its attacks on September 11, 2001. While the odds of detecting those high level threats are great, it is difficult to detect lower level threats, such as the attempted Times Square bombing. Furthermore, the nation must shift its focus from killing terrorists, the close fight, to decreasing the production of terrorists, the deep battle. Hayden questioned the lack of programs at colleges dedicated to this issue compared to the plethora of programs dedicated to studying the Soviet Union during the Cold War.  

His nervous-making bottom line: Americans need to prepare for the possibility that less organized and less lethal attacks will succeed in the near future. By failing to realize that there is a trade-off between preventing these lower level attacks and protecting U.S. civil liberties, a minor tactical victory for al Qaeda will turn into a major strategic defeat for the United States when a hysterical response results in the destruction of a security structure that has been relatively good.

No. 6: South Asia (namely Afghanistan and Pakistan)
Hayden believes that the United States has a winnable strategy in Afghanistan and needs to stay the course. He argued that the two main things that unify Pakistan are Islam and the fact that it is not India. The unifying principle of Islam becomes more powerful when other elements of statehood appear more fragile.

His AfPak bottom line: America's willingness to commit to at least 2014 in Afghanistan is positive and political and economic stability are needed in Pakistan.


The Best Defense

BD bookshelf: Robbins's 'This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive'

I finally got a chance to read James Robbins's relatively new book on the Tet Offensive. It is an odd volume, because it doesn't have that much new in it, and the core argument seems to be that Tet '68 would have been a strategic victory if only Lyndon Johnson had recognized it as such. In fact, I think the American people did understand what happened and concluded that if that was going to be the cost of victory, they were not interested. As former South Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky wrote in a 2002 memoir, "Because they had been told that victory was just around the corner, Tet shook America's confidence in the war and in its government." (P. 271, Ky, Buddha's Child.) Also, the fact that the Communists were able to reduce their engagements and casualty levels in 1968 and 1969, after taking a tactical beating in Tet, calls into question the entire attritional strategy the United States pursued.

Robbins thinks different. I still think he is wrong. Even so, two major points from the book struck me as worth pondering:

  • He is right to insist that the Communist killings of several thousand people at Hue should be better known. And he is correct to emphasize that those killings were a result of policy, not the result of a company gone off the reservation, as at My Lai. (But, I wondered as I finished this chapter, what about the 9th Infantry Division's killing of thousands in the Delta, also as a matter of policy? I looked in vain in the book for the name of Gen. Julian Ewell.)
  • And I didn't know the background of the guerrilla being executed in a Saigon street by General Loan in the famous Eddie Adams photograph. Known under the nom de guerre "Bay Lop," this guerrilla ran a death squad, and had been a few hours after killing perhaps 25 or more members of the families of police officers, Robbins writes. Earlier, Robbins reports, Bay Lop had taken hostages at the South Vietnamese army's tank training school and ordered the commander there to instruct Viet Cong in how to start the tanks. When the commander refused, Bay Lop killed him and his family, including his 80-year-old grandmother. One account says that five of the armored commander's children were murdered with hand grenades. Kind of puts a different gloss on that famous photo, no?