CIA Director Michael V. Hayden said Friday that the agency’s ability to pursue Al Qaeda and other terrorist networks was being hampered by declining political and public support for aggressive methods that the CIA had used in interrogations and other counter- terrorism operations.
In a rare public speech by a CIA chief, Hayden lashed out at the media and complained that the political climate was slipping toward apathy and risk aversion characteristic of the period leading up to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“When I get in the car at Langley and drive down the George Washington Parkway,” Hayden said, referring to the corridor between the CIA’s headquarters in Virginia and downtown Washington, “it’s not long before it begins to feel like Sept. 10.
“I’m not talking about the threat,” Hayden said, but rather “the willingness of the broader political culture to be comfortable with the things we believe are both lawful and necessary to fight this war.”
Hayden’s speech, timed to the upcoming anniversary of the terrorist strikes, is part of an offensive by intelligence officials to protect the expanded resources and authorities they were given nearly six years ago. Director of National Intelligence J. Michael McConnell sounded similar warnings last month in an effort to get Congress to give the government expanded electronic surveillance powers.
Hayden’s speech also was designed to defend an agency that has been a focus of criticism since Sept. 11, and has seen its place in the intelligence community significantly eroded.
Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Hayden provided new details to counter what he characterized as damaging misconceptions about the agency’s interrogation and “rendition” operations.
In particular, he disclosed that the CIA had transferred fewer than 100 prisoners to other countries. Critics have contended that the rendition program has led to detainees being tortured in such nations as Egypt and Uzbekistan.
Hayden also lashed out at a European Parliament investigation that was harshly critical of CIA operations. He called the contents of its report “wild speculation.”
The report concluded that the CIA had engaged in more than 1,245 flights, suggesting they were rendition flights shuttling terrorism suspects to other countries, he said, but the actual number of rendition flights “is a tiny fraction of that.”
“And the suggestion that even a substantial number of those 1,245 flights were carrying detainees is frankly absurd on its face,” Hayden said.
Instead, many of the flights were carrying equipment for officers in the field, documents to be shared with allies or senior CIA officials traveling to meet counterparts in other countries, he said.
His comments marked the first time an agency official had provided that level of detail about the scope of the rendition program.
Agency critics said Hayden’s speech was part of a concerted effort to polish the CIA’s public image and protect it from congressional efforts to rein in some of its more controversial activities. The Senate Intelligence Committee has scheduled a slate of classified hearings into CIA interrogation policies and counter-terrorism programs. And two Democratic senators have introduced legislation that would require the CIA to adhere to stricter interrogation guidelines adopted last year by the Army.
“There is this full-court press from Hayden right now,” said Tom Malinowski, head of the Washington advocacy group Human Rights Watch. “He is using the mystique and authority of his position to frighten potential critics into backing off and not limit the extraordinary authorities that this administration has granted to the CIA.”
In his speech, Hayden vigorously defended the CIA’s use of secret overseas prisons and “enhanced” interrogation methods.
Under an executive order signed by President Bush this summer, the CIA is still allowed to use an array of interrogation techniques -- including sleep deprivation and so-called stress positions -- that are banned under the military manual that the Army adopted. The manual was developed in the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal.
Hayden argued in his speech that imposing the stricter military rules on CIA interrogators would damage the agency’s ability to collect intelligence and protect the country from future attacks.
“We’re not in the Department of Defense; we weren’t consulted about the Army Field Manual,” he said. “No one ever claimed the Army Field Manual exhausted all the lawful tools America could have to protect itself.”
Hayden sought to differentiate the CIA from the Army, saying that in contrast with the young soldiers charged with questioning prisoners, the average age of CIA interrogators was 43, and that most had hundreds of hours of specialized training. He also said interrogation remained highly valuable, accounting for “70% of the human intelligence reporting” cited in a recent National Intelligence Estimate on terrorism trends.
In rendition cases, Hayden said the agency didn’t transfer prisoners until it received assurances from the destination country that the detainee “will be handled in a way that is consistent with international law.”
“We have to believe that it is less rather than more likely the individual will be tortured,” he said.
Hayden devoted a significant portion of his speech to criticizing the press for disclosing U.S. intelligence secrets, such as details about surveillance operations and the CIA network of secret overseas prisons.
“Publishing information on our sources and methods can be just as damaging as revelations of troop or ship movements have been in the past,” Hayden said. He said that one leak had led to the imprisonment of a CIA source and that other media reports had prompted counter-terrorism sources to stop cooperating. He provided no details.