The former head of the National Security Agency, Gen. Michael Hayden, says U.S. intelligence agencies got it wrong when they concluded Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and they should take the blame for that, rather than the White House.

"It was our intelligence estimates" that were incorrect, Hayden says in an interview with NPR's Robert Siegel. "We were wrong. It was a clean swing and a miss. It was our fault."

Hayden, a retired Air Force general, ran the the National Security Agency in the run-up to the Iraq War in 2003. He later served as deputy director of National Intelligence and then as director of the CIA.

His 10-year tenure in these top intelligence positions was no ordinary decade. In addition to the Iraq War, there was the Sept. 11 attacks, the expansion of NSA data collection and the investigations into claims of torture by CIA interrogators.

Hayden writes about this period in a new memoir, Playing to the Edge.


Interview Highlights

You dispute the commonly held belief that Vice President Dick Cheney and other administration officials sold the idea Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. It wasn't the White House, you write.

No, not at all — it was us. It was our intelligence estimate. I raised my right hand when [CIA Director George Tenet] asked who supports the key judgments of this national intelligence estimate.

I actually spoke to Leon Panetta much later. He was coming to take my job at CIA and I said, "Leon, I've looked at a lot of the things you've written while you've been out of government. You said that we buckled under pressure with regard to the Iraqi [national intelligence estimate], the weapons of mass destruction." And I said, "Leon, that was us. We were wrong. It was a clean swing and a miss. It was our fault."

After 9/11, President Bush authorized the NSA to intercept and collect communications, what we now call metadata. Does government have business storing these records?

What we had was a mass of American phone calls. Phone bills, actually, records of calls. These are put — for want of a better word — into a lock box and they are not accessed until we have a reasonable, articulable suspicion that we've got a dirty phone number, one associated with terrorism.

All we did then was simply — and I'm kind of speaking in cartoon form here — we get to yell through the transom and say, "Hey! Any of you numbers in here ever talked to this to now-known-to-be-dirty-number in Yemen?" And if a number in the Bronx got up, timidly raises its hand, so to speak, and says, "Well, yeah, I talked to him every Thursday," we then get to say, "Well, who the hell do you talk to?" And Robert, that's the limit of that program. That's all it did...

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. We actually need to give the government some power.

If NSA contractor Edward Snowden had access to so much data, doesn't his own behavior perversely prove the risks of storing so much information?

It's a powerful argument. That's exactly right. That the mere possession — not the abuse — because no one has shown any evidence of abuse of the metadata program. And when there has been abuse of other aspects of NSA activity, they have been identified, self-reported and punished within the agency.

Snowden had no access to metadata. Snowden had no access to operational traffic. Snowden had no access to the actual intercepts that NSA was collecting. Snowden was on the administrative side of the program. That's why so many of the things journalists have put out using the data he stole have been inaccurate — because they are a misreading of briefings and slides that existed on the administrative side of NSA and not the operational side.

What did you tell Leon Panetta, your successor as CIA director, to say about waterboarding?

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. They did these things with the assurance of the attorney general that they indeed were not torture. Do not accuse them of felonies."

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, someone has gotta call balls and strikes and that's the way it is.

Should one take a very legalistic view of torture rather than say what you did was wrong?

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."

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