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    A Former NSA Chief Thinks Privacy and Free Information Activists Are Potential Terrorists

    Written by

    DJ Pangburn


    Official CIA portrait of Michael Hayden, via Wikimedia Commons

    While people are fixated on former NSA and CIA chief Michael Hayden's Tuesday comments that the NSA's sifting through metadata is “really good news,” they should be far more concerned about how he characterized pro-Snowden, pro-privacy activists and hackers.

    In a Bipartisan Policy Center cybersecurity speech, Hayden invoked a century's worth of terror descriptors, calling Snowden supporters and privacy proponents “nihilists, anarchists... twentysomethings who haven't talked to the opposite sex in a five or six years.”

    What else would you expect from one of the chief architects of the NSA's domestic wiretapping program? How Hayden manages to define individuals who are so very clearly for something (privacy, free information) as “nihilists” is quite astonishing. It's more than likely rhetoric aimed at America's legions of impressionable, jingoistic patriots, but it shows an utter lack of regard for extremely valid concerns.

    The use of the term “anarchists” serves the same function—it strikes fear or terror in the hearts of America's heartland just as effectively as the Islamic terrorist that is everywhere, always plotting to destroy lives and freedom.

    "If and when our government grabs Edward Snowden, and brings him back here to the United States for trial, what does this group do?" said Hayden, venturing into speculative territory. “They may want to come after the US government, but frankly, you know, the dot-mil stuff is about the hardest target in the United States.” (Dot-mil refers to military networks.)

    On its own, saying that hackers would try to attack the US government to protect Snowden—and following up by saying they'd fail—is pretty baiting. Remember, Anonymous' recent hack of FEMA was in response to Homeland Security sort-of calling the group terrorists. Hacking the government to protest the government calling you anti-American is convoluted logic, but Hayden's dismissal of hackers while painting them as a threat is backwards as well. 

    But, wait, Hayden wasn't done yet. He hadn't effectively established the symbolic link between pro-privacy activists/hackers and Islamic terrorists. Few self-respecting US officials would miss an opportunity to make the association, thereby broadening the “terrorist” definition. And after Assata Shakur, we've seen the ever-evolving face of terrorism encompass just about anyone.

    "So if they can't create great harm to dot-mil, who are they going after? Who for them are the World Trade Centers? The World Trade Centers, as they were for al-Qaida,” asked Hayden, equating digital activism with violent terrorist spectacle. But, no matter, he was probably getting paid for his speech; and, like any good performer, he needed a show-stopper.

    "I'm just trying to illustrate that you've got a group of people out there who make demands, whose demands may not be satisfiable, may not be rational, from other points of view, may not be the kinds of things that government can accommodate,” he said.

    Here, Hayden strategically fails to mention that these groups, individuals, and countries' demands are really rather simple: telecommunications privacy and free information for better governance. These can, in fact, be satisfied, but certainly not by Cold War-minded folk such as Hayden. The enemy is everywhere, you see—forever.

    "But certainly Mr. Snowden has created quite a stir among those folks who are very committed to transparency and global transparency and the global web, kind of ungoverned and free,” added Hayden.

    “Ungoverned and free” means what, exactly? Has modern civilization descended to such a low point that any country valuing free information and electronic privacy is considered “ungoverned” or “free” in an anarchist way? This really is a peak of democratic absurdity, but definitely not outside the norm for a state official. A person of Hayden's variety can define any opposition to the status quo as terrorist. This sort of rhetoric is as old as recorded history. It's a useful tactic in preserving power.

    “I don't know that there's a logic between trying to [punish] America or American institutions for his arrest, but I hold out the possibility,” said Hayden. “I can sit here and imagine circumstances and scenarios, but they're nothing more than imaginative."

    Yes, Hayden, your imagination is considerable. But, it's also dangerous to anyone who disagrees with state abuses of power.