Former NSA and CIA head Michael Hayden’s new book The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies wants to be the manifesto behind an intelligence community coup. It ends up reading like outtakes from Dr. Strangelove.
Trump cannot discern truth from falsehood, Hayden says, and is the product of too much fact-free thinking, especially on social media (“computational propaganda” where people can “publish without credentials”) where lies are deployed by the Russians to destroy the United States. Instead Hayden calls for artificial intelligence and a media truth-rating system to “purify our discourse” and help “defend it against inauthentic stimulation.”
Hayden believes in the “fragility of civilization” as clearly as he believes there is a “FOX/Trump/RT” alliance in place to exploit it. Under Trump, “post-truth is pre-fascism, and to abandon facts is to abandon freedom.” Hayden claims Trump has a “glandular aversion” to even thinking about how “Russia has been actively seeking to damage the fabric of American democracy.”
Salvation, it would seem, depends on the intelligence community. Hayden makes clear, ominously quoting conversations with anonymous IC officers, that no one else is protecting America from these online threats to our precious bodily fluids. He warns that “the structures we rely on to prevent civil war and societal collapse are under stress.” The IC on the other hand “pursues Enlightenment values [and] is essential not just to American safety but to American liberty.”
Hayden recalls how he reminded a lad fresh to the IC to “protect yourself. And above all protect the institution. American still needs it.” He has a bit of advice about the CIA: “We are accustomed to relying on their truth to protect us from foreign enemies. Now we may need their truth to save us from ourselves.” The relationship between Trump and the IC, Hayden threatens, is “contentious, divisive, and unpredictable” in these “uncharted waters for the Republic.”
Simply put, Hayden’s book is blowing 10 dog whistles at once. Arise ye patriots of Langley and Fort Meade!
Yet for all his emphasis on truth, Hayden is curiously lax in presenting actual evidence of the apocalypse. You are left to believe because Hayden says you must: paternalism at its best. Plus, to disbelieve is to side with Putin. The best we get are executive summary-like statements along the lines of “There is clear evidence of what I would call convergence, the convergence of a mutually reinforcing swirl of Presidential tweets and statements, Russian influenced social media, alt right websites and talk radio, Russian ‘white’ press like RT and even mainstream U.S. media like Fox News.”
With that established, Hayden informs us that when the IC tried to warn Trump of the Russian plot, he “rejected a fact-based intel assessment…because it was inconsistent with a preexisting world view or because it was politically inconvenient, the stuff of ideological authoritarianism not pragmatic democracy.” Comrade, er, Candidate Trump, says Hayden matter-of-factly, “did sound a lot like Vladimir Putin.” The two men, he declaims, are “Russian soulmates.”
Hayden figures that if you’ve read this far into his polemic, he might as well just splurge the rest of his notes on you. Trump is “uninformed, lazy, dishonest, off the charts, rejects the premise objective reality even existed.” He’s fueled by Russian money (no evidence of this is presented in the book, Hayden says, because it’s hidden in the tax returns, as if Line 42 on Trump’s 1040 would read “Putin Black Funds $5 mil,” and the IRS, which does have the returns, overlooked that). Trump is an “unwitting agent” of Putin, which Hayden tells us in Russian is polezni durak, so you can see he knows his Cold War lingo. We hear how Wikileaks worked with the Russkies, how Trump Jr. worked with the Russkies, how the Russkies wormed their way into Tower so they could see the Big Board, how the whole brouhaha over #TakeAKnee was Russian meddling, and how Jill Stein existed to “bleed off votes from Clinton”—every Mueller fan-fiction trope tumbling from the pages like crumbs left over from an earlier reader.
That’s why The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies reads like as a polemic. But it also fails as a book.
There are pages of filler, jumbled blog post-like chapters about substate actors and global tectonics. Hayden writes in a recognizable style that might be called Bad Military, where everything must eventually be tied to some Big Idea, preferably with classical references Googled-up to add gravitas.
So it is not enough for Hayden to state Trump is a liar. He has to blame Trump for usurping the entire body of Western thought: “We are in a post-truth world, a world in which decisions are far more based upon emotion and preference. And that’s an overturning of the Western way of thought since the Enlightenment.” Bad things are Hobbesian; good things Jeffersonian, Madisonian, or Hamiltonian. People Hayden agrees with get adjectival modifiers before their names: the perceptive scholar ____, the iconic journalist ____, the legendary case officer ____. It makes for tiresome reading, like it’s Sunday night edging 4 a.m. and you still have nine undergrad papers on the causes of the Civil War to grade.
Hayden is openly contemptuous of the American people, seeing them as brutes who need to be led around, either by the Russians, as he sees it now, or by the IC, as he wishes it to be. Proof of how dumb we are? Hayden cites a poll showing 83 percent of Republicans and 27 percent of Democrats don’t believe the IC analysis that Russia meddled in the 2016 election when they damn well should. Further proof? Russian bots at work on Twitter influencing conservative minds by using the hashtags #God and #Benghazi.
In our odd times, Hayden is a Hero of the Resistance. Seemingly forgotten is that, as head of the NSA, he implemented blanket surveillance of American citizens in a rape of the Fourth Amendment, itself a product of the Enlightenment, justifying his unconstitutional actions with a mishmash of post-truth platitudes and still-secret legal findings. Hayden also supported torture during the War on Terror, but whatever.
This book-length swipe right for the IC leaves out the slam dunk work those agencies did on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Any concern about political motives inside the IC is swept away as “baseless.” Gina Haspel, who oversaw the torture program, is an “inspired choice” to head CIA. Hayden writes for the rubes, proclaiming that the IC produces facts when in reality even good intel can only be assessments and ambiguous conclusions.
That people so readily overlook Hayden’s sins simply because he rolls off snark against Trump speaks to our naiveté. That men like Hayden retain their security clearances while serving as authors and paid commentators to outlets like CNN speaks to how deep the roots of the Deep State reach. That some troubled Jack D. Ripper squirreled inside the IC might take this pablum seriously is frightening.
Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. Follow him on Twitter @WeMeantWell.