Retired U.S. Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden says the United States has conducted sophisticated spying operations for years that have kept the nation safer, but the majority of Americans are confused about how they work and why they are needed.
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"All nations conduct espionage. The Chinese conduct espionage. We conduct espionage. … We spy. We're actually pretty good at it," Hayden told Newsmax TV.
"But we conduct espionage to keep you safe and to keep you free. The Chinese conduct espionage to make their citizens rich. And that's a very big difference. The Chinese do these things for commercial advantage. We do not."
Hayden, who served as director of the National Security Agency and the CIA under President George W. Bush, said initial reporting about the different programs used to collect phone and email records was faulty.
"The American people have not yet quite understood exactly what's going on and I don't blame them at all. I blame the original news reporting, which combined [the surveillance systems being used] together in a very destructive and inaccurate way," he said.
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He was referring to the NSA's gathering of phone records of Verizon customers and of email records, obtained through a program called PRISM.
"The Verizon program does touch Americans and a lot of Americans because it comprises phone records. … All the targets of PRISM are foreigners. … But the public discussion combines them all," Hayden said.
Once Americans are given more information that distinguishes the differences, "the more clarity they see with regard to what these programs are, how they've been conducted, and how productive they've been," he added. "Most Americans would say these are good things."
He noted that the public's confusion is further compounded by the ever-changing circumstances as to the amount of security the United States needs.
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"The level of threat under which we live changes. Our knowledge of the enemies changes," said Hayden, who serves on the advisory board of LIGNET.com
, a global forecasting and intelligence website.
For example, under Bush, Hayden made significant alterations to the nation's CIA detention and interrogation programs because the federal laws, the country's sense of threat and its knowledge of al-Qaida had changed.
"So when the circumstances kind of move in different directions, we need to continually evaluate the kinds of decisions we make to keep us safe," he said.
Hayden said the public does have a right to know about the workings of some of these programs, even if it means disclosing more than might be deemed prudent.
"We're going to have to make public some things we'd rather keep from our enemies, make them public so the American people understand and appreciate what we're doing for them. I mean that's what happens in a democracy," he said.
Hayden is incensed at the claims of Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old NSA contractor who has been leaking details of the nation's surveillance programs, including the Verizon phone and PRISM collections, through Britain's Guardian newspaper.
"He claims whistleblower status. Whistleblower for what? For revealing a program that's been approved by two presidents, approved by bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress, and has been approved and is overseen by the American court system?" Hayden said.
"When he goes out there and start leaking alleged secrets about American signals intelligence collection or British signals intelligence collection, he's no longer even a pretend champion of privacy and civil liberties. He's just bleeding secrets."
In reality, Snowden, who is now hiding in Hong Kong after fleeing the United States, is "a very inward-turning, self-important person" whose boast that it was a high honor to be called a traitor by former Vice President Dick Cheney is "self-serving," according to Hayden.
"The objective truth is the 44th president, despite how he campaigned in 2008 and despite being a very different person than the 43rd president, has largely embraced, endorsed and in many instances expanded the counterterrorism programs of his predecessor," Hayden said.
"That's almost a prima facie case that what the Bush administration was doing was effective, lawful, and appropriate. … What kind of moral arrogance for example is required for a 29-year-old to presume that his moral judgment trumps the moral judgment of the 35,000 or so other people who work for the National Security Agency?"
Leakers like Snowden and Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army officer who passed classified material to the website WikiLeaks, "have made America a less safe place to be" through their actions, he added.
There are definitely proper and less harmful ways of voicing discontent over U.S. government policies, according to Hayden.
"To be a genuine whistleblower, [you] raise your hand and talk to your supervisor or talk to his supervisor," the retired four-star general said. "[What Snowden did] hardly seems to justify leaving town, leaving the country, taking documents with you, and handing them over to a newsman and making them public without regard to the safety of the United States.
"And when you have not given the system any chance to respond to your concerns, again, I don’t call him a whistleblower."
Hayden said new revelations that both United States and the United Kingdom had possibly both spied on diplomats at the G-20 summit in London four years ago may bring somewhat of a chill to the G-8 summit happening now in Northern Ireland.
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"[In] personal meetings between American leaders and other leaders, between British leaders and other leaders, based upon these allegations … they may make things a little more difficult," he said.
"But … all of these nation-states have their own espionage agencies. All of these states have their own intelligence agencies," he said.
"This is an R-rated movie. It's for adults only. The leaders there know what other nations do and, for me, without commenting on any specifics in these stories, the punch line would be something like major states conduct spying. Now, there's a real headline for you."
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