Playing to The Edge

Title:                      Playing to The Edge

Author:                  Gen. Michael V. Hayden

Hayden, Michael V. (2016). Playing to The Edge: American Intelligence in The Age of Terror. New York: Penguin Press

LCCN:    2015044201

JK468.I6 H39 2016


  • “An unprecedented high-level master narrative of America’s intelligence wars, from the only person ever to helm both the CIA and the NSA, at a time of heinous new threats and momentous change For General Michael Hayden, playing to the edge means playing so close to the line that you get chalk dust on your cleats. Otherwise, by playing back, you may protect yourself, but you will be less successful in protecting America. “Play to the edge” was Hayden’s guiding principle when he ran the National Security Agency, and it remained so when he ran the CIA. In his view, many shortsighted and uninformed people are quick to criticize, and this book will give them much to chew on but little easy comfort. It is an unapologetic insider’s look told from the perspective of the people who faced awesome responsibilities head on, in the moment. How did American intelligence respond to terrorism, a major war, and the most sweeping technological revolution in the last five hundred years? What was the NSA before 9/11 and how did it change in its aftermath? Why did the NSA begin the controversial terrorist surveillance program that included the acquisition of domestic phone records? What else was set in motion during this period that formed the backdrop for the infamous Snowden revelations in 2013? “– Provided by publisher.


Date Updated:  March 3, 2017

Caveat. Perpendat itaque lector cavendum (civilis).[1]

Reviewed by Joseph C. Goulden[2]

The image of the Central Intelligence Agency perhaps best known to the public is the shield in the marble entry concourse of the Original Headquarters Building which features a quotation from St. John, “And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”

But up a stairway off to the left is another quotation, on a stylized mural of Lady Liberty, “We are the Nation’s first line of defense. We accomplish what others cannot accomplish and go where others cannot go.”

Such was the challenge accepted by General Michael Hayden during a tumultuous decade in the heart of the intelligence community, first as director of the National Security Agency, then principal deputy director of National Intelligence, and, finally, director of CIA.

General Hayden’s account is both inspiring and frustrating. Inspiring, because he depicts a dedicated band of men and women determined to devise programs to protect the American public from terrorist attacks both at home and abroad.

But also frustrating, chiefly because of the members of Congress who disavowed programs they had previously approved, once they were criticized by a reckless media that valued headlines more than protecting sensitive national security measures.

The most striking account in Hayden’s details-rich book concerns hyper-secret intercepts of suspected terrorist communications from abroad which passed through the US. By law, NSA is prohibited from targeting US citizens for such cover. Stellarwind, as the program was called, was “easily the agency’s edgiest undertaking in its history,” as Hayden writes. It covered international calls, entering or leaving the United States, but only when NSA “had probable cause that it was affiliated with al-Qaeda.” One or both ends of covered calls were always foreign.

Given the sensitivity of the program, Hayden trod carefully. In addition to approval by President George W. Bush, NSA also relied on two decisions by the Foreign Intelligence Security Act court that “we take it as a given that the president has inherent constitutional authority to conduct electronic surveillance without a warrant for intelligence purposes.” And a presiding judge of the FISA Court, Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, would specifically approve Stellarwind.

Nonetheless, NSA was cautious when such intercepts proved to be “to, from or about an American.” NSA was permitted to collect and report the information, but the identity of the US person was obscured—“minimized,” in agency jargon—under such a term as “US person number one.”

Stellarwind was bountiful. From 2001 through 2005 it produced hundreds of reports covering “terrorist planning, finances, logistics, training, travel and contacts with people in the United States,” including the illegal purchase of arms and US persons linked to terrorist mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Uncountable “dirty numbers” revealed terrorist ties to persons in the US. These leads were handed to the FBI for further analysis or action.

Over the months the program flourished, Hayden gave more than a dozen briefings to the congressional intelligence oversight committees, first to the leadership, then to rank-and-file members. No serious objections were voiced. Indeed, much later a congressional report criticized NSA for not doing enough interceptions. The NSA Inspector General, Joel Brenner, later commented that “any president who failed to collect the intelligence authorized by this program would have been derelict in his duty.

Eventually, hints of Stellarwind leaked to the media. When New York Times reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau let it be known they were pursuing a story, President Bush met with publisher Arthur Sul zberger, Jr., and told him the paper would be “wrong” to disclose a program that was protecting America.

Indeed, if another attack was successful, Bush told Sulzberger, he “expected the Times leadership to be up on the Hill, right hands in the air along with the leadership of the intelligence community, explaining to Congress how they permitted it to happen.” Sulzberger ignored the president, and the Times published the story (albeit inaccurate and misleading, as Hayden contends).

Hayden spent much of his time at CIA trying to restore institutional morale that suffered from disclosures of detention programs that sometimes involved rough treatment of captured terrorists. He made a point of being a conspicuous presence at CIA “family days” when spouses and children roam the Langley campus.

Hayden’s title is derived from how a good athlete “takes advantage of the entire playing field right up to the sideline markers and endlines.” He concedes “that in espionage that often proves controversial, and I fear we will not be able to do that in the future without our public’s deeper understanding of what American intelligence is and does.” His highly-readable book is a commendable step in the right direction.

Hayden maintains, with justifiable contempt, “Most American intelligence professionals are well-acquainted with the broad cultural rhythm connecting American intelligence practitioners and American political elites: the latter group gets to criticize the former for not doing enough when it feels in danger, while reserving the right to criticize for doing too much as soon as it is made to feel safe again.”

And the media should heed a comment Hayden quotes from columnist David Ignatius: “We journalists usually try to argue that we have carefully weighed the pros and cons and believe that the public benefit of disclosure outweighs any potential harm.”

“The problem is that we aren’t fully qualified to make these judgments.”

Further Review[3]

An unapologetic insider’s look at America’s intelligence wars, from the only person to helm both CIA and NSA, at a time of heinous new threats and wrenching change.

How did American intelligence respond to terrorism, a major war, and the most sweeping technological revolution in the last 500 years? What was NSA before 9/11 and how did it change in its aftermath? Why did NSA begin the controversial terrorist surveillance program that included the acquisition of domestic phone records? What else was set in motion during this period that formed the backdrop for the infamous Snowden revelations in 2013?

For General Michael Hayden, “playing to the edge” means playing so close to the line that you get chalk dust on your cleats. Otherwise, by playing back, you may protect yourself, but you will be less successful in protecting America. “Play to the edge” was Hayden’s guiding principle when he ran the National Security Agency, and it remained so when he ran CIA.

In his view, many shortsighted and uninformed people are quick to criticize, and this book will give them much to consider and little easy comfort; it is an unapologetic insider’s look from the perspective of those who faced awesome responsibilities head on, in the moment.

As Director of CIA in the last three years of the Bush administration, Hayden had to deal with the rendition, detention, and interrogation program bequeathed to him by his predecessors. He also had to ramp up the Agency to support its role in the targeted killing program that dramatically increased in July 2008. This was a time of great crisis at CIA, and some Agency veterans have credited Hayden with actually saving the Agency. He himself won’t go that far, but he freely acknowledges that CIA helped turn the American security establishment into the most effective killing machine in the history of armed conflict.

For 10 years, then, General Michael Hayden was a participant in some of the most telling events in the annals of American national security. His goals in writing this book are simple and unwavering: No apologies. No excuses. Just what happened. And why. As he writes, “There is a story here that deserves to be told, without varnish and without spin. My view is my view, and others will certainly have different perspectives, but this view deserves to be told to create as complete a history as possible of these turbulent times. I bear no grudges, or at least not many, but this is a straightforward and readable history for that slice of the American population who depend on and appreciate intelligence, but who do not have the time to master its many obscure characteristics.”

Complied and Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake[4]

Twenty-one directors have headed the CIA in the 69 years since it was created in 1947. Three were admirals, two were Army generals, and 15 were civilians. Only one was an Air Force general and he had the added distinction of having served as director of the National Security Agency (DIRNSA), the only person to have held both positions. Now, retired four-star Air Force general Michael Vincent Hayden, like seven of his CIA predecessors, has written a memoir “to show the American people what their intelligence services actually do on their behalf.” (p. xi)

While Hayden’s decade of service in Washington —1999-2009—is the central focus of Playing to the Edge, the narrative weaves in his life story. After growing up in Pittsburgh—a dedicated Steelers fan—he attended nearby Duquesne University (earning both his undergraduate and graduate degrees in history), where he joined Air Force ROTC. Graduation found him with a five-year military obligation and a new wife, Jeanine, a classmate. Called to active duty as an intelligence officer in 1969, the family—including baby Margaret and son Michael, on the way—left Pittsburgh and found a new home in the Air Force.

After service as an imagery analyst at Strategic Air Command headquarters, there were intelligence assignments in Guam, Korea, Bulgaria (as air attaché), Germany, the Pentagon, and the National Security Council. By 1996, now a brigadier general, Hayden became commander of the Air Intelligence Agency in Texas. His next (and rare non-intelligence) tour was as deputy chief of staff, US Forces in Seoul (1997-99). It was while there that he was nominated—sort of— to be director of NSA. As Hayden tells the story, the Air Force chief of staff told him, “You’re not going to get it [but you will) be well positioned when the director of DIA position comes open next summer. That’s the one we’re really shooting for.” (p. 8) His only interview for the position was with DCI George Tenet. Hayden was sworn in as director late in March 1999. He adds wryly, “Stufflike that happens in Washington.” (p. 9)

Hayden arrived at NSA at a time when “only about ten years of global technological advance separated the agency from operational deafness.” (p. 12) Two incidents quickly drove this point home. The first was when the entire NSA computer system crashed and the agency went dark—completely down—for several days. The second was when he learned that he couldn’t “send an e-mail to everybody.” (p. 12) Change was clearly necessary and Hayden established the TRAILBLAZER program that, with the help of industry, would provide an agencywide upgrade of computers, software, and personnel to improve operational capability. At the same time, he had to deal with Congress—the source of needed funds and public trust—and their concerns about legality, in addition to privacy groups worried about “government spying on America’s private communications.” (p. 18) Foreign anxieties were also a factor, mainly over the so-called “Echelon” program that some thought, wrongly, involved US economic espionage on European allies.

If these issues were not enough to fill his plate, Hayden encountered what he calls “guerrilla warfare” from some professionals with vested interests in the “Thin Thread” program, which was designed “to collect and sort metadata and then to point analysts to the rich veins of SIGINT ore within the mountain of information.” (p. 21) When tested, it didn’t work well, but its adherents didn’t give up. Hayden summarizes the legal, operational, and ethical arguments they maintained, with sharp discontent, even after 9/11. The result was an outbreak of whistleblower revelations that eventually involved the Snowden disclosures, and public exposes to foreign governments. It took years to resolve the legal issues; the costly operational losses are still being felt.

From an overall point of view, the problem that Hayden was attempting to confront was the steadily growing volume of data NSA was collecting daily; 9/11 only increased the daily take and multiplied the associated hardware challenges. He reviews how NSA worked with its Five Eyes allies and new South Asian partners to cope with the data while tracking indications of further attacks. Simultaneously, Hayden and George Tenet were called before Congress to explain why 9/11 had not been foreseen by the intelligence agencies. The session did not go well as they explained the mistakes, the financial cutbacks, and the legal constraints that had limited collection before the attack.

Topics discussed in the closed hearings were promptly leaked to the press, a persistent problem noted in other situations throughout the book. Moreover, the committee members didn’t seem to understand “how SIGINT works,” concluded Hayden—and from then on he worked to eliminate that circumstance, with mixed results. (p. 45)

Then came the orders to prepare for the Iraq War, “for better or for worse.” (p. 48) This, he explains, led to personnel conflicts with the mission and complications when the resulting intelligence analysis did not meet policymaker expectations. After Hayden became director of CIA he reviewed the entire effort for his successor, Leon Panetta, telling him that contrary to “the urban legend that we were pressured by the White House … to write a case for war,” that didn’t happen. “We just got it wrong,” he writes, when it came to weapons of mass destruction. (p. 50)

Throughout the post-9/11 period, NSA worked to increase collection capability and fill gaps in coverage under a very close-hold, classified program called STELLARWIND. When up and running, Hayden writes, “We had the theoretical capability to access a significant percentage of the calls entering or leaving the United States.” (p. 73) Hayden explains at some length how the program worked, the legal issues resolved by the White House (collection without warrants), and the benefits it produced. Emphasizing that “no one expected STELLARWIND to stay secret forever,” (p. 76) Hayden took pains to brief the congressional intelligence committees, the Justice Department, and other Intelligence Community elements. Still, when it did become public through a leak to the New York Times[5], the resulting furor created by Congress and the press was substantial and even hypocritical. Hayden lays out the details.

Two other secret operations—PRISM and 215—the metadata program that replaced “Thin Thread”—came to light after Hayden had left government when Edward Snowden leaked their details. “PRISM was focused on foreigners; 215 was all about Americans… a repository of American calls—not content.” (p. 406) Hayden reviews the often acrimonious outpouring of misguided public reporting that resulted, while assessing the damage—political and operational ¬their exposure caused, and the corrective actions taken at various levels of government.

In July 2004, toward the end of Hayden’s nearly six-year NSA tour, the 9/11 Commission published the findings of its congressionally-mandated investigation[6]. Among other recommendations, it accommodated Congress’s desire for visible change with a major restructuring plan. In his chapter on the fallout from the Commission’s work, delicately titled “Is This Really Necessary?”, Hayden calmly notes that “there were few in the Intelligence Community at the time who thought that restructuring was a good idea. I certainly did not.” (p. 154) On the related topic of the DNI powers, Hayden and his NGA director colleague, James Clapper, “warned the House Intelligence Committee… that a feckless DNI would actually make things worse.” (p. 158) Then-defense secretary Rumsfeld got involved. Seeing a threat to the intelligence agencies under his command in the original version, he succeeded in negotiating modifications to the proposed act that in the end created the feckless, or at least less threatening, office of the DNI. It was promptly passed by Congress in the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention act of 2004. (p. 154) Hayden assumed a role in its creation when he was appointed the first principal deputy to the DNI (PDDNI) in April 2005. Early on in the assignment, in a display of initiative, Hayden had his staff draft a document stating that “the CIA station chiefs around the world would function as the DNI’s personal representative to the local intelligence service.” (p. 170) Under the new organization, he reasoned, what objections could there be to such a sensible proposal? There were few from the CIA and most of the Intelligence Community agencies. NSA and NGA were exceptions. They wanted their officers to be eligible to fill the posts. The issue was put on hold, only to be resurrected under a subsequent DNI. This time, thanks to CIA director Panetta, the CIA was formally recognized as the DNI representative and the DNI was replaced. (p. 174)

In May 2006, circumstances at the CIA were in something of a turmoil and the DNI recommended that Hayden succeed Porter Goss as D/CIA. Hayden’s first reaction was to “order” his two very accomplished personal assistants, Mary Jane Scheidt and Mary Elfmann, to “find Steve Kappes.” (p. 180) A respected and experienced clandestine service officer who had resigned under Goss, Kappes was found in London. He agreed to return as Hayden’s deputy. Bringing him on board was insurance that Hayden’s appointment would not be “seen as a hostile takeover by the DNI.” (p. 181) The confirmation process was ultimately successful, with only Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and a few other Democrats casting a “no” vote. (p. 185)

On arrival, Hayden found that “powerful people were accusing the CIA of felonies” (p. 179) and other wrongdoings, none of his making, that would dominate his three-year tenure—and beyond—and which he treats in detail. These included the now-familiar topics of secret prisons, enhanced interrogation practices, the destruction of interrogation tapes, and “targeted killings.” (p. 333) On the administrative side, a number of quandaries demanded attention. They included plans to release the Justice Department memos “that laid out in detail the techniques that had been authorized for CIA’s interrogation of high value terrorists,” (p. 378) frequent contentious exchanges with congressional committees, (pp. 225, 401) and the SSCI report on “detention and interrogation of terrorists” (p. 398) that eventually surfaced publicly after Hayden had retired and on which he offers incisive views.

There are separate chapters on the bombing of the nuclear reactor in Syria in September 2007, and the Iranian nuclear program. As to the former, Hayden writes, “We had shared a decade worth of sporadic evidence of North Korean-Syrian nuclear cooperation with our liaison partner.” (p. 255) While the United States considered various options to deal with the threat, the liaison partner acted unilaterally and destroyed the facility and Hayden describes that reaction. With regard to Iran, Hayden says it was the second most discussed topic of his tenure. His review of the Iranian nuclear agreement concludes that while claims of “the most intrusive inspection regime in history (is] probably a bit of hyperbole, [it] may indeed be a tough regime for Iran’s known facilities.” (p. 308) He adds that, while Bush was unlikely to have “bought this deal… it wasn’t like we had created a lot of better choices, either.” (p. 309)

Several reviews of Playing to the Edge took Hayden to task for these operations and those he had conducted at NSA. One wrote gratuitously that the book “is also badly written” while noting that his frequent references to his favorite NFL team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, made his style “jock-bureaucratic,[7] comments that say more about the writer than the general. One reason for the antagonism is Hayden’s repeated assertion that “the information that we got from [KSM] and others was incredibly valuable.” (pp. 189, 224) Another important reason was Hayden’s persistent but unsuccessful opposition to the New York Times’ publication of NSA’s STELLARWIND story that no journalist could support.[8]

The title Playing to the Edge was contributed by Hayden’s wife Jeanine, because it characterized his approach to challenging decisions as he traded risk with mission accomplishment in unprecedented times. And although the narrative is generally chronological, he manages to include his views on the staff and things like family day at CIA, “when families descend on headquarters” (p. 272) to see where their parent(s) work. He also comments on contacts with his support elements—general counsel, public affairs, CIA’s Publication Review Board—and various functional centers, as for example counterintelligence and counterterrorism—at both NSA and CIA.

Playing to the Edge is a very readable, candid, important assessment of Hayden’s intelligence career that gives a unique view of intelligence in action at the highest levels of our government. When added to the contributions of his predecessors, the result is an irreplaceable portrait of the Intelligence Community in action.

[1] On occasion, personal loyalties and opinions can be carved in stone and defended with a vengeance — at times with some venom thrown in. In these situations, the actual importance of the subject matter is dwarfed by the amount of aggression expressed. Retain a sense of proportion in all online and in-person discussions. [From The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies.]

[2] Goulden, Joseph C. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (22, 2, Spring 2016, pp. 101-102). Joseph C. Goulden’s 1982 book, Korea: The Untold Story of the War, was published in a Chinese-language edition in 2014 by Beijing Xiron Books. He is author of 18 nonfiction books. Goulden is a long-time reviewer of espionage and spy books for The Washington Times, for AFIO’s Intelligencer, for law journals, and other publications. Some of the reviews appeared in prior editons of The Washington Times or The Washington Lawyer (DC Bar Association) and are reprinted by permission of the author. Goulden’s most recent book [as of 2016] is Goulden, Joseph C. (2012). The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak into English. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

[3] The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (21, 3, Fall/Winter 2015, p. 133).

[4] Hayden Peake in The Intelligencer (22, 2, Fall 2016, pp.  114-116) . Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Direc-torate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelli¬gence. Other reviews and articles may be found online at

[5] Here Hayden is referring possibly to an article by Charlie Savage, “Declassified Report Shows Doubts About Value of N.S.A.’s Warrantless Spying,” The New York Times (April 24, 2015).

[6] Kean, Thomas H. (2004) and Lee Hamilton, compliers. The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, including preparedness for and the immediate response to the attacks. Also includes recommendations designed to guard against future attacks. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office

[7] George Packer, “Can You Keep a Secret?”, The New Yorker, (12 March 2016).

[8] See for example, Mark Bowden, “‘Playing to the Edge,’ Michael V. Hayden, Bush Era Spymaster, Defends His Record,” Books of the Times, New York Times, (23 February 2016). Mark Bowden is the author of Bowden, Mark (1999). Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press and the writer in residence at the University of Delaware.




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