The US is currently a nation at war but it’s not the right time to end it, believes retired United States Air Force four-star general Michael Hayden, who served as head of the CIA under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
The American intelligence guru spoke exclusively to RT on a whole variety of issues, including the recent developments in Venezuela following President Hugo Chavez’s death, weird and deadly drone attacks in Pakistan and the recent Stuxnet computer virus attacks on Iran.
He also explained why Guantanamo Bay is so important for the US and why he thinks China is now posing the biggest cyber threat to the world.
RT: Hugo Chavez was known for his hardline stance towards the US. He even accused the CIA of plotting to kill him. Will relations with Venezuela be troubled if Vice-President Nicolas Maduro succeeds Chavez as president?
MH: You know one fears that they might, one also hopes that they might not. I think Chavez was a strong populist, clearly popular in some segments of the Venezuelan society. He took this support and identity simply by being in opposition to the US. Whether or not we were causing him problems it was convenient for him to accuse us of causing the problems. Although he enjoyed high popular support among the poor classes he didn’t do much to reinvest in the infrastructure, reinvest in the oil industry, on which state resources depend. And I think the new president is going to take a very realistic look. What he needs to do in order to carry out and even to continue some of the policies or his predecessor, which had had some elements of strong social justice. But you can’t cheer things that you don’t have – you have to create. And that requires greater cooperation with the private sector and other segments of the Venezuelan society, and frankly greater cooperation with the US.
RT: The US drones have reportedly killed 1,300 people in Pakistan since Obama came into office. Many of these people were just terrorists but there were a lot of civilians too. This has outraged Pakistan, an ally of the US. Do you believe that drones are the right weapon in the war on terror and are they being used in the right way?
MH: This is a complex question and it doesn’t allow the simple answer. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said something really interesting in an interview, which I was a participant. Richard said the when it comes to targeted killings and the use of drones he is looking not for a switch but for a dial. I think that’s actually very profound and insightful. Look, we believe that we are a nation at war – we are at war with Al Qaeda and its affiliates. This war is global in scope, and we have both the right and the duty to take this fight to this enemy whoever they might be. And in some cases that requires targeted killing in some of the ungoverned spaces that remain on the planet. Now, for the longest time the immediate effect of the targeted killing – as we say we have taken off the battlefield and fight against someone already convinced, trained and prepared to do harm to the US – that immediate effect trumped everything else. That effect was overwhelming in terms of the calculation one had to make as whether we should do this or not. But even then, three-four years ago, we realized that wasn’t the only effect, there were also second and third order effects – effects on our allies, effects on the willingness of other to cooperate, effects on Al Qaeda recruitment, effects on the global image of the US. No I think it’s fair to say that those second and third order effects are becoming more prominent in terms of the overall effect of the individual action, which you have got to turn it down, you’ve got to take into consideration the second and third order effects before you make the decision to take this kind of action.
RT: You say that the US is a nation at war. When does this war end? When is it deemed a success? What needs to be accomplished for the US not to be a nation at war any longer?
MH: That’s a great question and it’s been asked by my countrymen: ‘We are at war, tell me when I’m finished. Let me know how I’ve won.’ And I know they will come a point. The folks like me with my background and my experience need to go to our political leaders and say: ‘You know, folks, the war paradigm served us very, very well. It was not without its own cost, it was not without its own effects. And now I think we have pushed this threat down to such a level that the war paradigm is no longer that useful to us, and we need to move to a law enforcement, to an international cooperation.’ Now, to round this out I think that will come someday but that day is not today.
RT: You served as director of the CIA for nearly three years and you were still in that position when the US president Barack Obama took office. There were reports that he was uneasy about using drones successively and you persuaded him. Is there any truth to these reports?
MH: It’s very difficult for me to talk about specific operations and to confirm or deny things that my government hasn’t confirmed or denied. But I think in general. I can give you this statement. With the exception of detention and interrogation, which of course became a very popular well-known cause of the change of administration, President Obama strongly embraced much of the war-on-terror strategy that President Bush was conducting during his second administration.
RT: It’s clear. You’ve just said there is no longer war on terror.
MH: It’s very interesting. He used this phrase ‘war on Al Qaeda and its affiliated’ internally. That was our operational expression of the president’s more public global war on terror. So fundamentally nothing really changed in terms of what the security structures of the US were doing.
RT: Two anonymous drone attacks in Pakistan last month reportedly killed nine people including two Al Qaeda operatives. Islamabad immediately filed a complaint with the American Embassy but the US officials said they were not responsible for those attacks. The Pakistani government, in their turn, say it wasn’t them. So there is no clear way to know who was operating those drones. Do you believe that this drone campaign that the US has been leading will eventually open up doors for anonymous drones because last month there were reported 50 countries that are now using drones?
MH: That’s an interesting question and I know the incidents you are referring to. You have to understand that I’m not in the government now for four years but I’m reading the newspapers. […] We have been leading the technology here but the technology here is not all that daunting. Other countries will follow in our footsteps. That puts a great deal of pressure on the US in terms of how it actually conducts itself with these weapons. We are indeed selling precedent that others will almost certainly follow.
RT: President Obama is no longer running for office. Someone say he is running now for the history books. Do you believe he should deliver on his promise to close Guantanamo Bay?
MH: I actually think the promise was a mistake. I realize there is a range of views within my country on that. But I go back to the promise. By the way, President Obama agreed with that promise that we are a nation at war. He said that consistently, otherwise he couldn’t do many of the things that he is now authorizing us to do. You have to begin with the war paradigm. One of the aspects of an armed conflict is the right to detain and hold combatants. So my debate with President Obama is not that he has to adapt to his promise to close it, but I think the promise to close it was unwise. By the way, you realize that we reduced the prison population during the Bush administration far more dramatically than during the Obama administration. We understood the branding issue – that was Guantanamo. We also understood that we were at war. I mean, look, at the first weekend of September in 2006 I moved 14 prisoners from CIA detention sites, the so-called Black Site, to Guantanamo. I needed a place to put them. Guantanamo was perfectly legal, perfectly acceptable place.
RT: Recent polls show that only 15 percent of selecting Muslim countries approve of President Obama’s foreign policy. Is that dangerous and troubling in any way?
MH: I go back a long way. I remember something called the Cold War. I bet that many of RT viewers remember it as well. During the Cold War we actually talked about the close fight and the deep fight. Here in the Cold War the deep fight was largely ideological. That was about western views towards economics, political democracy and Soviet views. Frankly, that was argued very strongly between the two groups. But when I was arguing Mike Hayden from Pittsburgh Pennsylvania had a legitimate view on communism, because whatever was communism may or may not have been, it was a western philosophy. When we entered that conversation my view has had legitimacy because I was speaking for my own cultural tradition. In the current war the deep fighting has to do with something going on inside Islam now. It’s very hard for Mike Hayden from Pittsburgh to enter that discussion about Islam. I have no legitimacy. In fact, if I do enter that kind of discussion I will make things worse, because I have no authenticity in making that kind of comment. What we see now, I think, is a struggle within Islam – it’s the struggle that all the monotheisms have gone through – Christianity, Judaism and now Islam. It’s a struggle with modernity. I’m trying to get your viewers too far back into history. Christians went through this in the 17th century at the end of the 30-years War. They said ‘Well, we’ve got plenty of reasons to fight with one another but let’s not include religion in the list anymore’ and we embraced a more secular approach. We separated the sacred from the secular. I think Islam is going through that debate now, but that debate is within Islam, and we have to see how it turns out.
RT: You’ve spoken about the threat of cyber war, and you said that it’s coming from China. What about groups like Anonymous?
MH: This distinction is something the Chinese have earned. They’ve worked for it for many years. The Mandiant report that came out about two weeks ago that focused very heavily on one particular unit in the People’s Liberation Army that worked for the Third Bureau. I had someone, a colleague of yours, coming up and say ‘This Mandiant report is big news’ and I said ‘Well, it’s big, but it’s not news’. I mean everybody who has been doing this knows what the Chinese have been doing. Now, to be more accurate the Chinese have been stealing stuff. They’ve not been using a cyber domain to create damage, to destroy networks or things like that, but they’ve been stealing stuff on an unprecedented scale. All right, all nations do this. I was the head of the American organization that did this for the US and frankly we were good at this. But we and some other nations around the world self-limit. We steal secrets out there in a cyber domain to keep the Americans free and safe. We don’t do it to make them rich, we don’t do it for commercial benefit. Let me rephrase it – it’s espionage and espionage is an accepted international practice.
RT: When the Mandiant report came out some were saying that the hands of the US are not clean. The US has also played a huge role in cyber espionage. And some were even saying that the US played a major role in the Stuxnet attack that was allegedly carried out by Washington and Tel Aviv against Iran. So isn’t the US in some way throwing stones when it lives in a glass house?
MH: I don’t even speculate, given my background, on who may or may not have been responsible for that. But I do agree with the premise of your question. That’s really a big deal. Some just use the weapon comprised of ones and zeros to take over the control system in the towns. But I can rephrase that sense and say that someone during the time of peace just uses a cyber weapon to destroy another nation’s critical infrastructure. Wow. That’s an important development. I fully understand the import of the fact of Stuxnet attack leave alone who may or may not have done it.