Review: General Michael Hayden’s ‘Playing to the Edge’

Every reader of Shadow Government should read the former CIA director’s memoir.

General Michael Hayden has written an important book, Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror, out in February. The book is a memoir of his career in intelligence and military service. Every reader of Shadow Government should read his book.

Hayden is a fixture on television. He is “paid to be a pessimist” and has had to spend much of his career having to consider “worst case scenarios” to keep us safe. For the first 20 years of his career, he thought about the Russians invading Europe or launching nuclear weapons against the United States. For the second 20 years, he had to confront Islamic extremism, cybersecurity, China, and North Korea.

Hayden has lived the American dream, and he represents the best of America. He grew up in a close-knit neighborhood in Pittsburgh. He lived in his grandfather’s house. His grandfather ran a version of the “Pennsylvania Lottery before there was a Pennsylvania Lottery,” meaning he ran numbers. His grandfather was a very generous man and well liked in the neighborhood, and, in addition to the math lessons he imparted, had a very positive influence on Hayden. His father had an 8th grade education and was a welder, and his mother had a 10th grade education and continued to work in a cleaning crew even after Hayden had reached the rank of one-star general in the Air Force. The Air Force ROTC was Hayden’s ticket to college. He and his wife and children had a military life and lived all over the world as he rose up the ranks.

Appointed by President Bill Clinton to the Nation Security Agency in 1999, he was the head of the NSA when 9/11 happened. He was appointed head of the Central Intelligence Agency for the last three years of George W. Bush’s presidency. Hayden is not a “political” person, but he has views and is sought out by a broad spectrum of presidential candidates. His name carries a lot of weight in the intelligence and military communities. Republican 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney was fortunate to have associated with his campaign the general’s time, counsel, and name.

I first met Hayden through the Romney campaign. We have both remained active in conservative, internationalist circles through the John Hay Initiative. Our paths have crossed on many occasions. I recently had the privilege of sitting down with him for an extended podcast interview at my day job, which will be coming out soon (google “Hayden Runde podcast” and it should come up, starting the week of September 19).

Hayden’s book raises a number of important issues. How do we balance security and individual liberty? Hayden was at the center of these debates as a policy maker for 10 years, and since. His book has many stories of conflicts between the Executive Branch and the Congress, some of which are ongoing.

I asked him in the podcast interview if we are safer now than on 9/11. He said, “Yes, we are safer than on September 10, 2001, but we are less safe than we were, say, in 2011.” He believes that the Barack Obama administration’s unwillingness to leave a residual force in Iraq and the delay and dithering (my words, not his) in Syria have increased our insecurity.

I did ask him about U.S. diplomacy and U.S. foreign assistance (let’s call them soft power). He has associated himself, along with dozens and dozens of other retired flag officers, with the U.S. Global Leadership Campaign — a group that supports U.S. diplomacy and development.

He told a story about his very last few weeks in office as head of the CIA. He was in the cabinet room and briefed the president and the National Security Council on a successful counterterrorism operation. At the end of the meeting, a senior Obama administration official complimented the CIA on a job well done. Hayden replied, “Sir, this is only a counterterrorism operation. We can ‘contain’ and we can ‘restrain’ but we can’t change the facts on the ground.” My conclusion from the conversation and the anecdote is that Hayden believes that U.S. soft power needs to be used to take advantage of the precious time bought by our military and intelligence victories in order to attempt to change facts on the ground — no small task.

It is also clear from his book that he vigorously yet politely disagrees with a number of administration policy decisions as they pertain to the interrogation of terrorists, using Guantanamo as a prison for bad guys, and the wisdom of certain intelligence programs.

My only complaint about the book is that he does not dedicate a chapter to what the future challenges are and how we should confront the current challenges. I hope he will write a second book about these issues.

article published in on September 6, 2016.

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