INTERVIEW: Michael Hayden

In the days after Al Qaeda terrorists hijacked and crashed four commercial jetliners on September 11, 2001, American President George W Bush ordered the National Security Agency to eavesdrop, without warrants, on American citizens and foreign nationals within the United States. His action represented the biggest shift in US intelligence gathering in American history. But the true architect of that secret program, code-named Stellarwind, was a former Air Force intelligence officer who’d been picked to run the NSA two years earlier: General Michael Vincent Hayden. What a long way from Pittsburgh, where Hayden was born in 1945. His youth was western Pennsylvania through and through: Dad was a welder, and the family lived for Sundays, when they would attend mass and Steelers games.

In college at Duquesne University, Hayden even worked at the Steelers’ summer training camp to help pay his tuition. He studied history, joined ROTC and started active duty in the Air Force in 1969.

A registered Independent with no political background, Hayden came up through the ranks of Air Force intelligence, and in 1999 President Bill Clinton selected him to run that secretive organisation nicknamed No Such Agency. When Hayden arrived, he found the NSA struggling to keep up with the technological tide. Two years later, 9/11 jolted him into unprecedented action, and he implemented rapid, transformational measures. Hayden’s Stellarwind program circumvented the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and even went beyond the authority of the Patriot Act passed by Congress.

After The New York Times exposed the operation in 2005, Hayden still moved forward — but another, more damaging exposure lay ahead. Bush made him Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence and then promoted him to Director of the Central Intelligence Agency in 2006. Hayden’s new position as top spy coincided with another CIA hire: Edward Snowden. The then 23-year-old computer tech later went to work for two NSA contractors, and in 2013 Snowden released confidential information on the spy program established by Hayden. The resulting firestorm implicated both the Bush and Obama administrations.

Today, Hayden is a principal at a security-consulting firm in Washington, DC run by former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff. Hayden’s book Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror was published this February. At 71, he remains an influential figure in the nation’s capital. But outside DC, to many he personifies a government that violates individual liberties.

To interview Hayden, playboy sent political columnist John Meroney. “Hayden is remarkable in his willingness to answer questions about being a spy”, Meroney says. “It’s striking for someone whose life has been so animated by secrets. We would meet at his office near the White House, with a stunning view of the capital city. He always seems to be on the go, drinking his diet coke and running to catch a plane or teach a class at George Mason University. Still, he remains affable and not at all like most top Washingtonians, whose every word seems calibrated for maximum public appeal.

“In August, Hayden announced to great media fanfare that he refused to support the candidacy of GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, arguing that Trump would ‘risk our country’s national security and well-being’. I wanted to understand what was behind Hayden’s stance, so we started our discussion there.”


PLAYBOY: Your position is that Trump’s statements on the campaign trail disqualify him from being president. Why doesn’t Hillary Clinton’s handling of classified information disqualify her?

HAYDEN: Because many of the things Trump says appear to be intentional and directed. What Clinton did may reflect incompetence and carelessness, but she’s not Edward Snowden.

PLAYBOY: In your letter against Trump, you state that he’s ignorant on foreign policy. But many presidents came into office ignorant of foreign affairs, including George W Bush, under whom you served the longest. Isn’t there a learning process they all have to go through?

HAYDEN: Yes, and that applies to the current president as well. But Barack Obama and George W Bush had the good sense not to shoot off their mouths with half-assed, uninformed remarks that defy law, logic and reality. Earlier this year I went on Real Time With Bill Maher, and he asked me about Trump’s statement that the US should kill terrorists’ families. I said, “That’s just not going to happen. The armed forces of the United States will not carry out such an order.” Well, the next week there was a Republican presidential debate, and Bret Baier of Fox News said, “Michael Hayden said armed forces aren’t going to kill women and children for you”. Trump responded, “Yes they will, because I’m a leader, a great leader”. And then he added, “On 9/11, the terrorists’ families knew about the attacks. They left the country before the attacks. They flew out of here, and they watched the planes fly into those buildings on television”. That’s absolute and total bullshit. Most of those attackers weren’t married, none of their families were in the United States, and we have no evidence that any relatives were watching the attacks on TV. Trump just made that up, which is a little different from George W Bush not knowing the name of the president of Nigeria.

PLAYBOY: Are you opposed to Trump because he repudiates Bush’s foreign policy in the Middle East every chance he gets?

HAYDEN: The day after I said I wouldn’t support Trump, he said that the people who signed the letter were the same people who brought us the war in Iraq and the rise of ISIS and allowed Americans to die in Benghazi. Trump’s answer underscores why we wrote the letter. Yeah, we were all there for Iraq, and we’ll take our lumps. History will judge. But none of us was in office for the rise of ISIS, as he claimed. Most of us have been out of government for eight years, so we had nothing to do with Benghazi. What we got from Donald Trump was a non-fact-based, emotional response condemning the character of the people who wrote the letter. That’s classic Trump.

With Trump, you get free association. I don’t see coherence, and that’s scary. Regarding ISIS, he says, “We’re going to finish them hard, we’re going to finish them fast, and then we’re coming home. We’re not going to do any of that nation-building shit”. Well, if we could kill our way out of this, we’d have been done 15 years ago. The only way out of it is to change the facts on the ground. A high peak of violence followed by disengagement, as he advocates, simply means you get to do it again.

PLAYBOY: Trump says he favours waterboarding as a technique to fight terrorism, and you’ve stated that waterboarding led to valuable intelligence. How are your views different?

HAYDEN: Well, Trump says he’s for waterboarding and “a lot more”. When I was in office, we never talked about “a lot more”. He also says, “We’re going to waterboard because they deserve it”. We never did it because terrorists deserved it. He’s advocating waterboarding as punishment for past sins. He’s doing it with enthusiasm. He seems to want to do it, a lot. We did it because we thought people were withholding lifesaving information. We did it with regret, and rarely. To me, those are big differences. Beyond that, we did it when the Department of Justice said it was lawful. Congress has spoken, American law has changed, and we’ve taken waterboarding off the table. If a future president wants to do it, he’d better bring his own bucket.

PLAYBOY: During the Cold War, the left wing seldom criticised the then Soviet Union even though it was bent on world domination. Now, with the collapse of Soviet communism and Vladimir Putin’s rise to power, Hillary Clinton and the Democrats are forceful in denouncing Russia and Putin. How do you explain the switch?

HAYDEN: Secretary Clinton was for Russia before she was against it.

PLAYBOY: What’s wrong with enlisting Russia in the fight against ISIS, as Trump advocates?

HAYDEN: He says, “If you’re willing to fight radical Islam with us, you’re our friend”. He’s made fighting ISIS the core around which all other aspects of American diplomacy will form. That position says Russia’s my friend because it’s willing to kill ISIS too. Well, as long as the Alawites rule in Syria, there will be a Sunni rebellion. And as long as there’s a Sunni rebellion, that rebellion and the civil war will feed fundamentalist Islam. But a core tenet of Russia’s participation in the war is the preservation of, if not Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, then the preservation of Assadism, or Alawite rule. Because Trump oversimplifies, we’re in league with a country whose policy guarantees ISIS will never go away.

PLAYBOY: Don’t you think Russia is a natural ally of the US?

HAYDEN: No. Russia is using its military power to sustain the Assad regime and not fight ISIS. The Russian air strikes against ISIS have been few and far between. While Russia has gone against the opposition, which includes al-Nusra, the former Al Qaeda group, that’s all about expanding government control, not taking on the global terrorist unit there. So I don’t see a convergence of views between the US and Russia, except in a modest tactical sense.

PLAYBOY: All signs indicate that the Russians hacked the Democratic National Committee this summer and subsequently released the documents on WikiLeaks. Why hasn’t the US government confirmed it?

HAYDEN: I have no reason to doubt the general consensus that the hack was done on behalf of the Russian Federation, though it was probably done by a Russian criminal gang on behalf of the government. That’s a pattern we’ve seen in Estonia, Georgia and Ukraine.

PLAYBOY: With that kind of certainty, why hasn’t President Obama rebuked the Russians for the hack?

HAYDEN: Because the next logical question would be “What are you going to do about it?” Lacking that answer, we choose silence.

PLAYBOY: Which should be more of a concern: Russians hacking the US election results or Russians mounting a covert influence campaign to coincide with the election?

HAYDEN: Hacking an American political party is a legitimate act of foreign intelligence gathering by the Russians. We would have done the same against a comparable target. But the Russians did more: They weaponised the information. They used the information to meddle in or at least cause us to lose confidence in the American political process. That’s called covert influence in the business, and it is quite different from routine espionage.

PLAYBOY: That sounds like Cold War stuff.

HAYDEN: Yeah, and this is not the former Director of the CIA claiming that my agency never in history tried to influence a foreign election. But it’s very dangerous.

PLAYBOY: You’ve been in the top echelon of Washington for decades. From that vantage point, how have the Clintons been able to survive one scandal after another?

HAYDEN: They’ve shown real talent. They’re a very able couple in politics and policy. As senator, Hillary Clinton got good marks from both sides of the aisle for being hardworking and knowledgeable. In the transition from Bush to Obama, I briefed Obama and his top people on ongoing covert actions, and it was clear to me Secretary Clinton was the smartest and most well-informed of the bunch.

PLAYBOY: Given that, and your objections to Trump, why do you refuse to vote for her?

HAYDEN: I wonder what she was thinking when she set up her e-mail system. For someone with my background, what she did is inconceivable. Anybody who has experience at this level of government knows that once you’ve set it up as she did, it’s all bad. It’s bad on the preservation of federal records, bad on mingling things you want to keep private as opposed to the secret stuff, and bad with things that shouldn’t be in there bleeding into an unclassified e-mail account. When she used her own e-mail and server, she became responsible for the protection of the data. So there’s a big question of her competence. She knew she was going to run for president, so who would even get close to the kinds of arrangements she had, even if they technically stayed on the right side of the law? And I will tell you, every subsequent explanation she gave was incoherent.

PLAYBOY: Do you think other governments were reading her e-mails when she was Secretary of State?

HAYDEN: I do not know that. But any security service worth its salt would’ve discovered where Secretary Clinton’s server was, and any security service that could have, would have broken in. Let me turn this on its head: If a foreign minister in a country important to the United States, particularly one perhaps not friendly to the United States, had done what she did, I would’ve been all over them as Director of the NSA.

PLAYBOY: One more Russia question: You were born in 1945, so you must remember the “duck and cover” instructional films of the 1950s. They taught American schoolchildren how to “protect” themselves in the event of a nuclear attack. How did the threat posed by the Soviets affect you?

HAYDEN: It was damn dark. One of my strongest memories was when I was a junior in high school in October 1962 and all of us lined up for confession during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I grew up Catholic and I accepted the Manichaean view of the world. The church was in strong opposition to communism because the Soviets were against freedom of religion. Practically every aspect of my life was “Communism is bad, communism is a danger, communism is a threat”. Later, when I was on active duty in 1973, the US went to DEFCON 3 because we weren’t sure what kind of weapons the Soviets were shipping to the Egyptians as the Israeli army was crossing the Suez Canal. So I’ve seen the world more dangerous than it is now.

PLAYBOY: When you were growing up, did you ever fantasise about running the CIA?

HAYDEN: Oh God no. Hell, I was 18 before I got on an aeroplane. I lived in Pittsburgh — you know where Pittsburgh is, right? It’s tucked in the south-west corner of Pennsylvania. I joined the ROTC because there was a big war on and we had universal military service. And I was in a neighbourhood where everybody joined.

PLAYBOY: For many, the CIA means Jason Bourne, Jack Bauer, Jack Ryan and Homeland. Do these Hollywood depictions ring true?

HAYDEN: When you go into the headquarters, you walk over the iconic shield, and that image is featured in the movies and on TV. Homeland gets all the foreground wrong, though. My wife and I were watching it the other day and she almost guffawed when the Saul Berenson character, played by Mandy Patinkin, pulls out a cell phone in the agency headquarters. Oh yeah, that’s going to happen. But what Homeland does get right is all the stuff in the background. The inward turning, the sisterhood/brotherhood, the focus bordering on obsession.

PLAYBOY: On Homeland, CIA officer Carrie Mathison, played by Claire Danes, sometimes uses sex to recruit a source or an agent.

HAYDEN: That would not be acceptable.

PLAYBOY: Would a CIA officer be terminated for using sex?

HAYDEN: Yeah. We have an acronym, MICE, which stands for the tools we can use: money, ideology, coercion or compromise and ego or excitement.

PLAYBOY: You said you had a Manichaean, black-and-white view when you were young. Is it fair to say that being a spy changed you?

HAYDEN: No one can be a good intelligence officer and have that black-and-white view of the universe. You begin to see humanity in every aspect of life. I’ve sat across the table from [Bosnian Serb general] Ratko Mladić. He was an absolute war criminal, but I could still see he was a human being. When I briefed President George W Bush on Al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, I made him human. I didn’t quench our desire to kill the son of a b*tch, which we did, but I did make him more human.

PLAYBOY: Have you ever killed anyone?

HAYDEN: No, not personally.

PLAYBOY: What was the heaviest burden of being Director of the CIA?

HAYDEN: It’s an institution that relies on secrecy for its very success inside a political culture that’s distrustful of secrecy. It’s a challenge to be successful in espionage and also be true to America’s values.

PLAYBOY: That’s theoretical. What about the personal burden?

HAYDEN: Well, the phone would ring in the middle of the night, and I generally knew what it was about. I’m not going to describe it any further.

PLAYBOY: Can you tell us how often it rang?

HAYDEN: It was fairly routine. As I reached to grab the phone, I would remind myself: Think this through; you’re going to live with this decision for the rest of your life. That’s not an invitation to go soft, because if you do and something goes bad, you’re going to live with that too.

PLAYBOY: If the CIA is as good as you say it is, why couldn’t we stop the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001?

HAYDEN: George Tenet, who was Director of the CIA before I got there, was excited about Al Qaeda and tried to alert the nation, but it was hard to get that kind of message across. “I know this has never happened before, but I got a bunch of guys in the Hindu Kush who I think might be an existential threat to our well-being as a republic” — that was pretty tough to argue. George also had to cover the waterfront. I mean, the CIA is the nation’s global espionage service.

PLAYBOY: You’d been Director of the NSA for a little more than two years at that point. Was Osama bin Laden on your radar?

HAYDEN: I was trying to modernise the place to keep track of signals. I wanted to take money off peripheral missions in order to invest in new technology that would intercept modern signals that were changing. God, you would’ve thought I was telling everybody to make Sophie’s choice. Nobody wanted to give up anything. I had to go to the mat to try to reduce NSA’s coverage on Nigerian organised crime. This sounds like dodging your question, but there was a collective inability to visualise a new kind of threat.

PLAYBOY: But the rise of ISIS, which seems to be a far greater threat than Al Qaeda, has also taken us by surprise in the past couple of years. How did it happen?

HAYDEN: They may have been so busy cutting down trees over here, they just didn’t notice the second-growth forest popping up over there. Look, the drumbeat of keeping the nation safe for the next 24 hours has driven most of our analytical energy into so-called targeting. It’s all about the disambiguation of data, getting down to the very specific. And that has almost certainly been at the expense of what’s going on.

PLAYBOY: What’s the future of Iraq?

HAYDEN: Iraq doesn’t exist. It’s gone, and it’s not coming back. Syria doesn’t exist either.

PLAYBOY: We can’t fix them?

HAYDEN: That’s correct. We will never have a unitary political entity called Iraq again, nor will we have one called Syria. Even if we could replace Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Bashar al-Assad with St Francis of Assisi, those places would still be shitty. And they’re going to be shitty for a generation or two because Islam is now going through what Christendom went through in the middle of the 17th century with the Thirty Years’ War. At the end of that, our monotheism decided, “You know, we’ve got lots of reasons to kill one another, but let’s take religion off the list”. We severed state power from theological disputes. It remains to be seen what this great monotheism will do with that question.

PLAYBOY: Even though Iraq and Syria have gone to hell, what’s your assessment of whether the CIA and NSA are winning or losing?

HAYDEN: In the war on terror, we were safer four years ago than we are now. ISIS is a bottom-up organisation, whereas Al Qaeda was authoritarian and top-down. So now we’re adjusting how to deal with threats coming from ISIS.

PLAYBOY: You use the formulation “war on terror”, which George W Bush started. Why won’t you just say that the US is in a war against radical Islam, as Trump and others argue?

HAYDEN: Because that’s a bridge too far. This is indeed about Islam — but it’s not about all of Islam, and it’s certainly not about all Muslims. There are multiple civil wars in Islam — a Sunni-Sunni war between the monarchies and ISIS and Al Qaeda; a Sunni-Shia war led by Saudi Arabia and Iran; and then Islam, as one of the world’s great monotheisms, trying to make its peace with what you and I call modernity.

PLAYBOY: Let’s go back to when you were appointed Director of the NSA in 1999. Did that surprise you?

HAYDEN: Oh yeah. It was just out of the blue, and I’m not a technical guy. George Tenet interviewed me for about an hour, and about four weeks later I was told that the administration was going to send me to Congress for confirmation. I never spoke to the president or the vice president. In fact, as NSA Director my visibility to any president happened only after 9/11.

PLAYBOY: You’ve said that before the attacks, the systems at the NSA were so antiquated it was difficult to even send e-mail. Today there’s a perception that the NSA is reading every e-mail Americans send. How did we make such a gigantic leap?

HAYDEN: Let’s play it back to pre-9/11. I was accused of either being incompetent and going deaf or being omniscient and reading everyone’s e-mail. The NSA was having the devil’s own time in keeping up with the revolution in modern telecommunications, and I freely admit we were well behind. So that put the lie to this idea that we were reading everybody’s correspondence.

PLAYBOY: And 9/11 changed all that?

HAYDEN: Because of the attacks, the NSA got more money and focus and began an aggressive pursuit to be able to read any communication — not all, but any. The goal was that no part of the modern global telecommunication structure would offer a safe haven to an enemy of the United States.

PLAYBOY: But didn’t that direction lead to us to monitor German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone?

HAYDEN: I can’t confirm or deny that we were doing that. But I can tell you that leadership intentions are important. My job was to intercept communications whose acquisition would provide information that made America more free or more safe. This is not about intercepting the communications of just bad people. If you’ve got a travel agent in Pakistan talking to a travel agent in Kuwait, neither of whom is involved in anything nefarious other than trying to make a buck being a travel agent, but they’re talking about the travel of someone we’re really interested in, guess what — I’m going to intercept their communications.

PLAYBOY: But Merkel is an ally.

HAYDEN: Yeah, so it’s not about the innocent or the not innocent, the guilty or the not guilty.

PLAYBOY: The US just wants to know what these leaders intend to do?

HAYDEN: Leadership intentions are high-priority intelligence targets. Would we collect on all foreign leaders? No. But look, the American culture isn’t this kind of fuzzy, amorphous human right to privacy. America is very binary: Are you or are you not protected by the Fourth Amendment? If you are not and your communications contain things that keep America more safe and free and I haven’t received political guidance to stand down, game on.

PLAYBOY: But again, Chancellor Merkel is an ally. Can’t you see the reason some might be troubled by our listening in on her cell calls?

HAYDEN: Well, if you’re offended by it, how about listening in on her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, who opposed US policy in Iraq? He secured a 1-billion-Euro loan for the Russian gas pipeline Nord Stream right before he left the chancellorship and then was granted a lucrative board position with Nord Stream. You think we ought to be interested in that?

PLAYBOY: So even though you won’t confirm that we were listening to Merkel’s phone, all governments try to listen to one another. Did you use a mobile device when you were Director of the NSA or the CIA?

HAYDEN: No. I never had a mobile device until I left government. Period.

PLAYBOY: Why not?

HAYDEN: Because of that very reason. You can’t make it work.

PLAYBOY: We can’t make a mobile device that’s impenetrable?

HAYDEN: You can’t make it secure enough. But look around Washington: They’re using iPhones and BlackBerries and they’re saying, “I won’t use it for any classified work”. My message is that the CIA Director’s note to his family is of importance to a foreign intelligence service. Did I have my own e-mail? Sure. It was AOL, and it was on my own computer.

PLAYBOY: What would you use it for?

HAYDEN: Notes to the kids, complaining about the Steelers’ offensive line.

PLAYBOY: Did you think foreign governments were reading your e-mail?

HAYDEN: I assumed they were. Let me rephrase that: I had to act as if they were. To do otherwise would’ve been irresponsible.

PLAYBOY: So we have to accept that everyone is spying on everyone?

HAYDEN: I would lose all respect for a country that didn’t take its responsibilities to its citizens seriously enough that it wouldn’t spy. You may recall that when President Obama was campaigning in 2008, he ran things on his BlackBerry. After he was elected, we told him, “You can’t do the BlackBerry here, Mr  President-elect”. He gave an interview to CNBC where he said something that sounded like a Second Amendment bumper sticker: “They’re going to have to pry it from my fingers.” So we said, “All right, can we borrow it for a day?” And then we kind of tightened it up. I’m telling you this because we were telling the soon-to-be most powerful man in the most powerful nation on Earth that if he used his personal communications device in his own national capital, his e-mails and texts were going to be read by scores of foreign intelligence services. That’s just the way things are. Steal my secrets, shame on me. I’ll give you one more punch line on Merkel. Ifthe Americans were intercepting her cellphone in Berlin, we were the least of her problems.

PLAYBOY: So where do you see our drive for security going?

HAYDEN: I’m not just a technician. I get it; I vote too. But we carry out the will of the nation, and the nation needs to decide through its political processes how it wants to deal with a new flavour of threat — substate actors, groups and individuals that have the capacity we used to associate only with nation-states. How does the country want to deal with those threats?

PLAYBOY: Two or three weeks after 9/11, as NSA Director you reportedly met with Tenet, and he asked, “Is there anything more you can do?”

HAYDEN: Yes, and I replied, “Not within my authority”. He said, “That’s not quite what I asked you”. I said, “I’ll get back to you”. So I sat down with my NSA guys and said, “If we had the authority, what are the additional things we could do to make America more safe in these unique circumstances we now find ourselves in?” They came up with two or three things, and I went down and briefed President Bush. He and Attorney General John Ashcroft judged that the president had the authority to authorise them based on his commander-in-chief authorities, and the president acted. The president was willing to authorise things we said no to.

PLAYBOY: Such as?

HAYDEN: We didn’t do domestic-to-domestic calls. Actually, I think the president of the United States has the legal authority to do that, but I said to David Addington, the legal counsel to Vice President Dick Cheney, “We don’t have the right plumbing for that. And frankly, if we’re going to listen in on domestic-to-domestic calls, I’ll go to a judge”.

PLAYBOY: When Bush gave the green light to the now infamous domestic eavesdropping program, did you think it was legal?

HAYDEN: Yeah. Did I think this would be controversial? God, yeah. Did I recognise there would be a reckoning — if not a legal reckoning, at least a political reckoning? Absolutely. It’s a continuous debate that goes back to Lexington and Concord. The NSA thought it was doing precisely what the American people said they wanted it to do. The so-called 215 program — the metadata program — was directed by two presidents of two different political parties. It was authorised and reauthorised by Congress and overseen by the federal court system.

PLAYBOY: Speaking of 215, also known as the “sensitive collection program”, what’s your view of Edward Snowden?

HAYDEN: Not very positive.

PLAYBOY: We figured that. The CIA hired him in 2006, around the same time you became Director. He was a high-school dropout. Why would the agency hire someone like him?

HAYDEN: Because we needed computer expertise and had been told not to look to traditional moulds for people. If we’d rejected people like Snowden out of hand, we’d be open to even more legitimate criticism. So we brought them all in. He wasn’t a star performer when he worked for the agency. Before that, he took some job as a security guard at an NSA facility, then got on with a contractor at Dell and then at Booz Allen Hamilton. But it was just his computer knowledge, which we’re all in great need of, that got him on at the CIA.

PLAYBOY: How did the NSA react to news of Snowden’s disclosures?

HAYDEN: The general outcry took the NSA off-balance. The NSA was like, “What? Wait a minute. Congress knows. The President authorised it. The court’s overseeing it. That’s exactly the way you said we should get permission to do this stuff”. The NSA got permission for Section 215 of the Patriot Act, and its strongest defenders were the two intelligence committees in Congress. What was new is that a lot of Americans — and they didn’t have tinfoil on their heads — said, “That no longer constitutes consent of the governed. That may be consent of the governors. You may have told them, but you didn’t tell us.” That’s what this is about.

PLAYBOY: Did Snowden disrupt any NSA operations?

HAYDEN: Absolutely.

PLAYBOY: Do you put Snowden in the same category as other Americans convicted of espionage against the US, such as Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were stealing nuclear secrets so the Soviets could build a bomb?

HAYDEN: Snowden didn’t do it for money, so that separates him from a whole bunch of folks. He didn’t do it for the cause of a foreign state, which separates him from the Rosenbergs. He did it for ideology. It was kind of his own — not a competing global ideology in some sense of a cold war. All that said, what he did was the single greatest haemorrhaging of legitimate American secrets in the history of the country.

PLAYBOY: One of the key questions raised by Snowden’s revelations seems to be whether our government needs formal power to spy within our country. We didn’t really have that before 9/11.

HAYDEN: This is not about the ability to spy on Americans; it’s about the erosion of the old distinction between foreign intelligence collection and domestic law enforcement. Things aren’t as crisp and clear as they were 50 years ago. If there’s an e-mail between Waziristan and Yemen, the odds are pretty good that it’s sitting on a server in the United States. Is that American? For some it is. And that used to not be a problem. That correspondence never sat in the United States, and therefore there was never a claim to privacy protection. So what you’re seeing is not a desire to spy on Americans. What you’re seeing is: How do we continue to do that which we’ve done in the past in a world in which the distinction between foreign and domestic, law enforcement and intelligence, is not nearly as bright?

PLAYBOY: The stories of Snowden’s leaks by Glenn Greenwald in The Guardian and the documentary Citizenfour by Laura Poitras have been called the greatest journalistic coups since the publication of the Pentagon Papers during Vietnam. How do you view Greenwald and Poitras?

HAYDEN: They describe themselves as advocacy journalists, which is different from being a journalist. When they got access to these things, they rolled them out in the darkest way possible in terms of what it was they thought they were describing, and very often they got it wrong. Saying the NSA had free range of the domestic internet service providers’ servers — that’s simply not true, and a lot of the things that have come out have nothing to do with your privacy or mine. I would call it espionage porn. It’s certainly destructive of the capabilities of a free people to collect intelligence and defend itself.

PLAYBOY: But can you understand why Daniel Ellsberg and others see Snowden as a hero?

HAYDEN: They’ve accepted the premise that what we have here is an all-knowing, all-surveilling surveillance state. This fits into the preconceived narrative. The “evidence” Snowden was pushing was reasoned, somewhat measured responses to the world in which we find ourselves. I can’t find a civil libertarian who gave a damn when we were trying to cover the Soviet Union’s Strategic Rocket Forces.

PLAYBOY: You’re going back to the Cold War?

HAYDEN: Yes. There were Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces communications coming out of Moscow and going to the intercontinental-ballistic-missile fields in the Far East. The US was all over that communication channel, trying to pick up words of interest like launch.Today’s equivalents are terrorist and proliferator and trafficker communications co-existing with your Gmails. So if you want the NSA to do for you in the 21st century what it did for you in the last half of the 20th, it has to be in those communications paths — even though your communications are skidding by there too.

PLAYBOY: What do you see as Snowden’s long-term fate?

HAYDEN: He stays in Moscow. I cannot conceive of a plea deal that would satisfy him and not alienate the 100 000 Americans who go to work every day and keep secrets.

PLAYBOY: What do you make of former attorney general Eric Holder going from criticising Snowden to now saying he performed a “public service”?

HAYDEN: I was heartened that the Obama administration backed away from Holder’s latest statement almost immediately. Snowden engineered the greatest leak of legitimate American secrets in the history of the republic. Whatever debate he may have generated about American metadata, the other 98 percent of what he stole had nothing to do with American privacy. It had everything to do with how America conducts legitimate foreign intelligence. If he ever returns home, the first sound he hears should be “You have the right to remain silent”. I don’t mean to be an ass about this, but the damage he did will last for a very long time. He had other tools available to him than mass, near indiscriminate theft and then seeking refuge in a totalitarian state.

PLAYBOY: What’s your view of Chelsea Manning, the transgender Army soldier who as Bradley Manning gave documents and other material to WikiLeaks in 2010?

HAYDEN: Manning is different from Snowden because she didn’t even know what she was downloading; it was just a data dump. What higher principle was Manning embracing? Seriously. The only crime she claimed to uncover was the video of our Apache helicopter killing two journalists in Iraq. But that had already been investigated. Manning was an unhappy, frustrated young soldier who appears to have been bullied by her squad and platoon mates. At her trial, she said that what she did was irresponsible.

PLAYBOY: President Obama’s term is finished. What’s your assessment of him?

HAYDEN: He wanted to expend most of his energies in making America better and viewed much of what the external world was imposing on him as a distraction from that primary task. Unfortunately, the world didn’t co-operate and imposed itself on him. And to be honest, it has imposed itself on him in a very punishing way.

PLAYBOY: Why do you think Obama continued some of Bush 43’s tactics, such as the section of the Patriot Act that permits the government to search a citizen’s records without the citizen’s consent?

HAYDEN: Obama ran on an “I’m not George Bush” approachAnd what did he do? He kept the part of the Patriot Act you’re talking about, which is a pretty good argument that it was probably a pretty useful program. But it’s also an argument that national security looks different from the Oval Office than it does from a hotel room in Iowa.

PLAYBOY: Oliver Stone’s new movie Snowden has an NSA head, possibly a Hayden stand-in, who says, “Most Americans don’t want freedom. They want security”. How does that characterisation square with you?

HAYDEN: Why do the purveyors of this conspiratorial bullshit think they have a right to condemn those who work to keep them safe? Two days after 9/11, I addressed the NSA. I said, “It’s not just our safety but our character as a free people that is at stake here. Every nation is required to balance the needs of security with the needs of liberty. Thanks to James Madison and a bunch of his friends, we have planted our flag well on the side of liberty in that difficult question. But if a nation feels itself threatened, feels its children are at risk, it tends to move its banner closer to the requirements of security than those of liberty. You and I have a role here. You and I can and will preserve American liberty and we will do it by making America feel safe again”. I often think of that speech when I hear criticism like that. It doesn’t square with the world I lived in.