Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Playing to the Edge

Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror
© Michael Hayden 2016
464 pages

As someone who became a civil libertarian in response to the increasingly sweeping powers of the surveillance state during the Bush administration, I began reading this as a hostile audience, more or less. I was chiefly interested in the chapter on cybersecurity, although he says very little about it. The book is part memoir-biography, part defense of the privileged powers given to the United States' intelligence-security programs. While I am still not nor never will be comfortable with the amount of information being collected by these agencies, even if they are staffed by the heroic characters who populate this book under Hayden's pen, recent books on cyber war have made me realize that that agencies like these have actual national-security priorities, with a focus on malevolent organizations outside the U.S.

Hayden is very good at making the enormous amount of data-collecting sound completely mundane, even benign, and is very cagey with details when a plant is bombed or infrastructure sabotaged via computer viruses. Sometimes interesting and sometimes plodding are his comments on CIA-NSA organization, and the organization of the intelligence community (sixteen agencies, including the intelligence depts of other organizations). There's the usual attraction in a political memoir in that formidable media personalities are suddenly reduced to ordinary people: Secretary of State Condeleeza Rice becomes "Condie", the attorney general is "Al", Hayden himself is "Mikey"'s a little touch of intimacy that a vast bureaucracy, far-removed from the concerns of the people as a whole, is usually without. All that said, I still like having Greewalds and Snowdens to keep the government on its toes.

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