Playing To The Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror can be a little dry and it’s loaded with acronyms, but I found it well worth reading. General Hayden gives his readers a good overview of the defensive and offensive capabilities of the National Security Agency (NSA) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). He was the former director of both and was deeply involved in the USA’s response to 9/11. Hayden also walked a fine line between being transparent to the citizens of the USA and keeping the secrets necessary to be effective against those who would do us harm.
It’s not a long book but it took me a long time to get through it. The acronyms and the complex organization of the US Intelligent agencies made the read difficult at times. Once I got through a couple chapters it went quicker, but the acronyms were still an issue. There is no reason his editor couldn’t have expanded them occasionally. At some point I figured if I couldn’t remember what they were they weren’t important.
I didn’t think the book was self-serving. Hayden explained his decision making pretty well and makes a strong case for the decisions made during the Bush (43) administration: whether it is rendition, interrogation, or transparency. You may not agree with the decisions but at least someone made them, and put some thought into them. I don’t have much sympathy for critics attacking to decisions, based on hindsight or unrealistic views of the world.
Is there another job in the US Government this important or as fraught with danger. And not just military, but legal, ethical, and financial. I doubt a USDA inspector, who makes the same money runs the risk of being murdered by terrorist, brought up on bogus war crime charges, accused of murder, and sued by do-gooders who have never risked anything. And then are accused of not working hard enough or smart enough to prevent the murder of their fellow citizens. It’s an insane job and they should be commented. I can sort of understand misguided critics making all sorts of crazy claims but it’s hard to fathom the flak the community got from Congress who should know better, and did know better, but would grandstand and lie for political gain.
It’s a good book and maybe we should force Congress to stand down from all their complaints about the US intelligence community until they’ve read it. Of course they would accuse General Hayden of torture: acronym torture.
Excerpts From My Kindle
We had spent most of our professional lives in the Cold War. Intelligence then was hard work, but it was difficult for our adversary to hide the tank armies of Group Soviet Forces Germany or the vast Soviet ICBM fields in Siberia. That enemy was pretty easy to find. Just hard to kill. This was different. This enemy was relatively easy to kill. He was just very, very hard to find. Seems simple, but it inverted a lot – location 590-594
We were also concerned with what we called “the deep battle: blunting the jihadists’ appeal to disenchanted young Muslim men and, increasingly, young Muslim women as well. The deep fight requires discrediting and eliminating the jihadist ideology that motivates this hatred and violence. It requires winning what is essentially a war of ideas.” I conceded that “some of the actions required by the close fight can make fighting the deep fight even more complicated.” There were always second- and third-order effects to any action, even lawful and necessary ones. “But it’s actually very rare in life that doing nothing is a legitimate or a morally acceptable course of action. Responsibility demands action, and dealing with the immediate threat must naturally be a top priority.” – location 3386-3392
At NSA I was fond of saying, “The agency requires only two things to be successful. We need to be powerful and we need to be secretive. And we live in a political culture that distrusts only two things.” Power and secrecy, of course. – location 6526-6528