12/9/08

The Case Against Hayden... and Greenwald?

In a provocative piece today, Glen Greenwald raises the right flags about General Michael Hayden:
In May, 2006, Barack Obama voted against confirming Gen. Hayden as CIA Director. Obama was one of only 15 Senators to oppose Hayden. In his speech on the Senate floor explaining his vote, Obama emphasized Hayden's role as Bush's NSA Director in implementing and overseeing Bush's illegal warrantless surveillance programs -- programs Obama has repeatedly decried as an assault on the rule of law.
But then he slips into nonsense:
Until five weeks ago, I literally never heard anyone claim -- in either party -- that it was irrelevant who the President appointed to his Cabinet and other high-level positions. I never heard anyone depict people like the Defense Secretary and CIA Director as nothing more than impotent little functionaries...
I haven't been following the debate as closely as Greenwald, so it's a near certainty that he knows some things I don't about how people have been framing Obama's appointments. But since I have changed my position over the past few weeks from one of concern to one of support, I feel a need to reiterate my thoughts in light of these comments.

I, personally, haven't said anything that suggests that Cabinet positions are unimportant and that we should stop worrying about who Obama appoints. The debate that I've been witnessing and participating in hinges on the fact that Cabinet picks are important, crucial even, and that it is therefore important to get them right. Talented, experienced, pragmatic public servants applying their formidable skills under the yoke of strong leadership is, in my opinion, a healthy version of the executive office. Strong-willed, power-mad, ideolgocial bullies wheeling and dealing in secret and abusing the fact that there was a vacuum in the oval office where there should have been a president is the unhealthy version that we just jettisoned in no uncertain terms.

That said, fasten your seat belts, because I am about to get myself in some serious trouble.

We know for a fact from previous experience that not all government agencies operate under the same assumptions or even with the same intentions. Sometimes, the federal government even works against itself with various agencies working at cross purposes: there have even been cases in the past where people who were receiving government funding for their efforts were also being monitored by the FBI--for being subversive. The CIA is not immune to this sort of behavior. It is a powerful, and powerfully self-interested institution. It would be difficult for a president not to have the CIA on their side at any time; during war time, it would be reckless, devastating, even suicidal.

The fact is, Obama is not going to be able to pick someone who is antagonistic to the CIA to be head of the CIA. Otherwise, he will invite open war within the intelligence community and open himself up as a target.

Now, I'm not going to defend Hayden--I agreed with then-Senator Obama's principled stand against him back in 2006--and I sincerely hope that he does not remain head of the CIA. Here you'll find a little more background on Hayden from Think Progress. It's pretty damning, reading more like rap sheet than a resume.

But at some point, someone with operational experience is going to have to head the agency. We shouldn't sit idly by if an agent of the dark side continues to sit atop the CIA, but the idea that we can get anyone with a halo into the top slot seems a little naive. If we hadn't piled on Brennan to begin with, maybe people like Hayden wouldn't have become an option.

Now, tighten your seat belts, because this is where it gets really crazy: maybe Hayden isn't an option at all. Spencer Ackerman claims that the very idea that Hayden might be kept on is just a CIA plant (hat tip: Greenwald, who has already clearly outlined the CIA's close relationship with the media). To me, this underscores the reality that not only is the agency a force to be reckoned with, it doesn't take kindly to criticism either. The president cannot be overtly antagonistic without inviting serious discord or even open revolt.

In fact, floating Hayden may be payback in and of itself: Obama has repeatedly said that the CIA should be subject to the interrogation techniques outlined in the Army Field Manual, a position that Hayden has outright opposed in congressional hearings.

In my opinion, intelligence reform should be the top priority of the new administration, but reform takes experience, patience and pragmatism. It is neither to be undertaken lightly nor with sound and fury. If he wants to change the agency, Obama needs an ally at the top of the CIA--someone who shares his vision of banning harsh interrogation techniques, secret detentions and extraordinary rendition--but who the agency itself will respect. That's why this appointment is far from meaningless; in fact, it matters more than ever.

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