WASHINGTON — Retired general Michael Hayden, former director of the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency, called on President Obama Monday to show "some political courage" and reject many of the recommendations of the commission he appointed to rein in NSA surveillance operations.
"President Obama now has the burden of simply doing the right thing," Hayden told USA TODAY's Capital Download. "And I think some of the right things with regard to the commission's recommendations are not the popular things. They may not poll real well right now. They'll poll damn well after the next attack, all right?"
Obama, who received the report from the five-member advisory committee just before he left to vacation in Hawaii, has promised to make "a pretty definitive statement" in January about its 46 recommendations. He appointed the panel in the wake of a firestorm over disclosures by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden about surveillance of all Americans' telephone calls and spying on German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other friendly foreign leaders.
The commission, led by former acting CIA director Michael Morell, said the recommendations were designed to increase transparency, accountability and oversight at the NSA.
Hayden, who headed the super-secret agency from 1999 to 2005, oversaw the launch of some of the controversial programs after the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington in 2001. He defended them as effective and properly overseen by congressional intelligence committees and a special court.
"Right now, since there have been no abuses and almost all the court decisions on this program have held that it's constitutional, I really don't know what problem we're trying to solve by changing how we do this," he said, saying the debate was sparked after "somebody stirred up the crowd." That's a reference to Snowden, who was granted asylum in Russia.
Snowden's revelations have fueled objections by civil liberties advocates that the NSA goes too far in collecting information about Americans not suspected of any wrongdoing. This month, a federal judge in Washington called the program "almost Orwellian," although a few days later, another federal judge in New York said it was legal.
Hayden's blunt warnings about the risks he sees in accepting the commission's recommendations underscore the difficult balancing act Obama faces between ensuring the nation's security and respecting citizens' privacy. No decision he makes is likely to avoid criticism.
"Here I think it's going to require some political courage," said Hayden, 68, a retired Air Force general whose service in the nation's top intelligence posts gives him particular standing. "Frankly, the president is going to have to use some of his personal and political capital to keep doing these things."
In the interview with USA TODAY's weekly video newsmaker series, Hayden:
•Said the vast data on Americans' phone records are "far safer and privacy is far more secured with NSA holding the data than some third party." The commission recommended that the phone companies or a third party take over responsibility for storing the data.
•Protested that requiring the NSA to seek individual court orders when it wants to search the data would reverse changes put in place after the 9/11 attacks.
•Ridiculed a proposal to increase protections for personal data about non-citizens abroad. "The Fourth Amendment to our Constitution is not an international treaty," he said. For those who aren't covered by its protections, he said, "if your communications contain information that make Americans more safe and more free, game on."
•Said the idea of requiring the president and his advisers, not the intelligence community, to approve any spying operation on foreign leaders would be "a little cumbersome" but not a significant change from the way things effectively work already. "If you don't think the national command authority had a broad understanding of what we're doing, I've got a bridge I want to interest you in," he said.
•Endorsed the recommendation to split leadership of the NSA from the Cyber Command, the military's cyber-warfare unit. The two positions were combined in 2009. Obama has rejected the proposal. "That might be an OK idea, not because Keith Alexander, the general who now holds both positions ... has too much power but because Keith has too much work. I just can't understand how one man can do both jobs."
Hayden opposed the idea of granting Snowden amnesty, in part to learn more about what he did and how he did it and to prevent him from leaking additional information. "It's kind of like negotiating with terrorists," he said. "All that does is tell the next Edward Snowden out there, if you're going to do this, make sure you steal enough."