Michael Hayden: don’t be ashamed of torture

We were innocently listening to the radio when an interview with retired Air Force General Michael Hayden came on. He ran the NSA for a decade (1999-2009) and was director of the CIA. He’s just written a memoir, which unfortunately over the past 15 years has come to mean a high-level military director reveals all the ways he violated our Constitution. Whether he expresses regret or not is always the question; Hayden answered that question in the negative very quickly. The transcript we’re relying on can be found here.



In explaining the monitoring of all Americans’ phone calls by the NSA, Hayden was unapologetic:

SIEGEL: …in order for this program to work over the years – and we’re talking about a threat that we foresee existing for many years…

HAYDEN: …Right.

SIEGEL: You’re going to store my data through many different CIA directors, NSA directors, FBI directors, members of Congress, presidents, all the while telephonic history – at least the metadata history – is going to be accessible to the government.

HAYDEN: It’s going to be preserved. And access was a very important part of this program. And it was accessible by about two dozen people at NSA whose access to the database had keystroke monitoring on it. Now, look, any power in the government can be abused. But what you’ve just described is an equally powerful argument against arming policemen. That can be abused too, Robert.

SIEGEL: That can be abused.

HAYDEN: We actually need to give government some power to protect us…

—How the argument that the federal government monitoring all phone calls at all times and keeping that data seemingly forever is comparable to refusing to let the police carry weapons is beyond us… except that it’s actually a dead-on comparison: our police are fatally over-armed, carrying military-grade weapons they don’t need that they come to abuse, and our government is violating the Constitution by stripping us of our privacy, a power which can only end in one of two results: either the monitoring is so light and uninformative that it’s never consulted and therefore ignored; or it is gradually and inevitably used to monitor more and more citizens for its’ own sake (i.e., abused).


…SIEGEL: Toward the end of your tenure at the Center Intelligence Agency, the question of interrogations became extremely controversial. You advised your successor – President Obama’s nominee, Leon Panetta – what to say about waterboarding. I want you to tell us what your guidance was.

HAYDEN: Yeah. I simply said do not use the word torture and CIA in the same sentence ever again. You can object to some of the enhanced interrogation techniques. You can, in your heart of hearts, believe they meet some legal definition of torture. But Leon, you’re taking over a workforce that did these things in good faith, that did these things with the assurance of the attorney general that they indeed were not torture. Do not accuse them of felonies.

SIEGEL: As a matter of institutional politics or as a matter of truth?

HAYDEN: Well, certainly as a matter of truth. Look, I get it. Honest men differ. A lot of good people describe these things as torture. The definitive legal judgment under which the agency was operating – and, you know, sooner or later, Robert, somebody’s got to call balls and strikes, and that’s the way it is.

—“Interrogations” is the new euphemism for torture. So is “enhanced interrogation”. What is interrogation enhanced by? Torture. We don’t think one has to consult one’s “heart of hearts” to know that water boarding and electro-shocking and force-feeding is torture: if you wouldn’t want it to happen to you if you were in military custody, it’s torture. The idea that you can do something bad “in good faith” is already tenuous: it’s technically possible, but only if you don’t know that what you’re doing is bad. No one tortures in good faith because everyone knows it’s bad. Hayden’s argument is, frankly, exactly what Nazi soldiers said after the war: I didn’t know it was bad, I was told it was good.

And we would add that Hayden sort of protests too much: you don’t threaten people and try to stop them from calling something torture if you really don’t believe it was torture, or if you really believe there’s nothing wrong with torture. You do that when you know it was torture, and that torture is wrong, and you want to hush it up.

The last statement is beyond belief. “Honest men differ”? And the last sentence is telling: he starts to say the definitive legal judgment is that it was not torture, then right-turns into saying well, the judgment the NSA was working from (a cobbled-together judgment created to justify NSA’s actions as opposed to an official legal judgment), then just drops it and says “we just decided it was necessary.” Anyone who resorts to baseball analogies to justify torture is beyond callous; they’re not in their right mind.

We’ll break the next section down bit by awful bit:

SIEGEL: But if we read accounts of ISIS waterboarding hostages somewhere in Syria or Iraq, I don’t think we’d hesitate but to say they’re torturing these people.

HAYDEN: Well, did ISIS have someone present who was legally and morally responsible for the well-being of the hostage? Did ISIS have someone there with monitoring devices on the body of the hostage? Does ISIS have a rule that anyone in the room can call knock it off if they believe the interrogation..

—Hayden conjures up a 1984 image of an American sitting quietly in the corner while someone is tortured making sure that the person being tortured is happy. And telling the torturers to stop if the torture impacts the prisoner’s well-being.

SIEGEL: …Now the person that’s being waterboarded can’t call knock it off.


SIEGEL: You’re saying somebody who’s part of the team.

HAYDEN: Right, who’s part of the team.

—If you’re “part of the team”, are you likely to tell your fellow-torturers to stop? If, as Hayden claims, the torturing was done in good faith because Americans felt it was the right thing to do, when would anyone step up and say to stop?

SIEGEL: I will – I checked reference books. Merriam Webster’s Dictionary cuts you a break. They say it’s a form of interrogation, waterboarding. The Encyclopaedia Britannica calls it a method of torture. The Oxford English Dictionary calls it a form of torture. I mean, must one take a very legalistic and narrow view of torture rather than say look, you guys – what you did, you believed to be legal. You were acting in the flush of 9/11 with the expectation of further attacks, but this was wrong. What you did was wrong.

HAYDEN: Oh, that’s a totally honorable position. I get that. What I don’t get is someone who says by the way, it didn’t work anyway.

—Hayden uses the word “honorable” in a despicable way here to mean “bleeding hearts who don’t want to live in the real world”. That’s why he then takes an otherwise baffling left-turn to say it’s crazy to claim that torture doesn’t get results.

SIEGEL: You would say it worked?

HAYDEN: I would say we got information from the people against whom we used enhanced interrogation techniques. We moved them from a zone that was pretty much represented by defiance to a zone where they were at least more compliant, more willing to talk about the things we believed we needed to know to keep the country safe.

—Of course they got information; people who are being tortured will say anything to stop the torture. It’s terrible and telling that Hayden refers to that information as “things we believed we needed to know”—the torturers decided to believe what they heard. Of course they did; you have to find a way to sleep at night.

The interview moved on, but we were left a wreck in the wake of this passage. Americans do not torture. We led the world in banning torture of prisoners of war. We believe in justice for all. If you can find an American who believes an American military service member should be water-boarded if captured by an enemy, then we might change our minds, but that won’t happen.

It reminds us of something Abraham Lincoln said in a debate with Stephen Douglas where Douglas had gone on for a half-hour justifying slavery as not so bad. Lincoln basically said, Douglas seems to think slavery is good but if you asked him to be a slave himself he would say no.

We don’t want to be tortured, so we shouldn’t torture—even if it produced good information (which is does not). We can’t let people like Michael Hayden convince us otherwise.