Former NSA director defends surveillance programs


hayden rod
Former NSA Director Michael Hayden talks about government surveillance programs with CISAC Co-Director and Hoover Senior Fellow Amy Zegart during the launch of Stanford's speaker series, "The Security Conundrum."
Photo credit: 
All photos by Rod Searcey

The heated debate over the line between liberty and national security took center stage as Gen. Michael Hayden, former director of the National Security Agency and CIA, defended government surveillance programs at Stanford’s launch this week of “The Security Conundrum” speaker series.

If such surveillance methods were further restricted, “that smaller box, in my professional judgment, would make the job of the NSA harder and would probably make you less safe,” Hayden told a packed audience at the event co-sponsored in part by the university’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) and the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC).

Hayden admitted to being “prickly” as he discussed privacy concerns over NSA’s collection and storage of phone and email metadata covering billions of calls and messages by American citizens. The surveillance programs, which were exposed last year by leaks from NSA contractor Edward Snowden, were only used after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, given “the totality of the circumstances,” Hayden explained.

Hayden was director of the NSA from 1999 to 2005. He then led the CIA from 2006 to 2009.


The metadata collection “is something we would have never done on Sept. 9 or Sept. 10. But it seemed reasonable after Sept. 11,” he said. “No one is doing this out of prurient interests. No, it was a logical response to the needs of the moment.”

Amy Zegart, CISAC’s co-director and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, led the conversation with the four-star general. She pointed out that a majority of Americans distrusts the NSA and believes the agency is lying.

Hayden stressed that the phone records were similar to billing statements – detailing who made the calls and when. “There is no content. It is not electronic surveillance. Not at all.”



Though he understands why the operation is “theoretically frightening,” in reality, it’s designed to aid in the capture of terrorists within the United States, Hayden said.

“To listen to the content of the calls would violate the laws of the United States. It would violate the laws of physics,” he said. He challenged if anyone could offer “concrete evidence” of harm stemming from the phone data collection.

In defining the right to privacy, Hayden cited his philosophy behind the balancing act between security and liberty.

“Privacy is the line we continually negotiate for ourselves as unique creatures of God and as social animals,” he said. “There are some things that the community has the right to know – and there are other things that they clearly do not have the right to know.”

The debate is over where that line is drawn, between “what is mine” and “what is owed the collective,” he said.

Hayden noted that the phone and email metadata collection programs are only a small part of the larger issues the nation faces as it deals with increasingly adept enemies and the surveillance abilities of other nations.


“I’m just simply saying – who knows more about you? One of the least of your worries is the government,” he said, half-jokingly. He noted that Google knows more about Americans than does the U.S. government, and the Silicon Valley company uses that data for commercial purposes.

Addressing how tech companies are becoming more reluctant to cooperate with government requests for email communication data, Hayden said he didn’t have an answer about how to address the relationship.

There is a call for transparency of what the government is doing, but Hayden said “translucency” might be the better option, so as to not reveal all that the U.S. does for foreign intelligence.

“This is an enterprise that’s based on absolute secrecy,” he said of the NSA.

“We have to give American people enough information to be at least tolerant, if not supportive, of what the American government is doing.”

But to achieve that, “it’s not transparency,” he said. “We actually have to be translucent … where you have the glass … and you get the broad patterns of movemen

The danger of not being able to target emails, Hayden said, would be that emails become a safe haven for enemies. “If we don’t’ do it, if you’re not going to let us do this stuff … over the long term, it puts your liberty at risk because bad stuff will happen.”

“The Security Conundrum” speaker series looks behind and beyond the headlines, examining the history and implementation of the NSA operations, the legal questions generated by them, the media’s role in revealing them, and the responsibility of Congress to oversee them.

Each guest speaker, in conversation with Stanford scholars, will probe the problems from different vantage points to explain the political, legal and technological contours of the NSA actions, as well as outline ways to preserve the nation’s security without sacrificing our freedoms.

On Nov. 17, journalist Barton Gellman will be the featured speaker. He is known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning reports on the 9/11 attacks and has led the Washington Post's coverage of the NSA. On April 10, Reggie Walton, the former presiding judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, will take the stage as the speaker on April 10.

Along with FSI and CISAC, the series is also co-sponsored by the Hoover Institution, Stanford Continuing Studies, Stanford in Government, and the Stanford Law School.