A s dusk fell on September 11, 2001, I made my way to the NSA office responsible for counterterrorism analysis. These analysts were still located on a floor near the top of one of our high-rise headquarters buildings because we could not afford the disruption in mission that would have resulted from moving them into spaces in the lower, presumably safer, ops building to which most essential personnel had decamped hours earlier.
My purpose was not much more than just to be there, a quiet note of concern for and confidence in them. Many of these analysts were Arab-Americans, and the impact of the day’s events was being felt by them both professionally and personally. As I walked through the shop floor, the analysts kept their headsets on, feverishly working, focused on mission and scarcely acknowledging my presence.
At the same time, there was a crew from the NSA logistics shop tacking up heavy blackout curtains on the office’s exposed windows. “Blackout curtains in Eastern Maryland,” I remember thinking. “Things are going to be different.”
Just how different things are, or should be, has been a topic of great debate in this country (and beyond) in the ten years since that horrific day. Hyperbole and vitriol accompanied that debate at practically every step, from the Patriot Act to interrogations to surveillance to full body scanners and beyond.
As someone close to that debate—first as director of the National Security Agency (where I began the electronic surveillance effort known as the Terrorist Surveillance Program) and then as director of the CIA (where I inherited the agency’s Rendition, Detention, and Interrogation Program, including its so-called “black sites”)—I have felt its heat.
But let me now offer this hypothesis: despite the frequent drama at the political level, America and Americans have found a comfortable center line in what it is they want their government to do and what it is they accept their government doing. It is that practical consensus that has fostered such powerful continuity between two vastly different presidents—George W. Bush and Barack Obama—when it comes to this conflict.
To begin, the American public has overwhelmingly endorsed what two presidents, the Congress, and the courts have said: we are in a global conflict with al-Qaeda and its affiliates. That may sound self-evident, but none of our global counterterrorism partners quite agree with the legitimacy of that formulation for themselves or for us.
It’s quite clear that the United States is the only nation that—given the daunting operational and intelligence demands— could have pulled off the May 2nd raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Less obvious but equally certain, the United States is the only nation (with the possible exception of Israel) that would have.
Only a nation that believes itself in a global conflict would allow its agents, with overwhelming local power, to kill an unarmed man, particularly one under federal indictment for multiple crimes. Battlefield standards for appropriate action are different from those for crime fighting.
The same national consensus that legitimated that action has also shaped the contours of national policy with regard to detainees. It has been the American political process—expressed in popular attitudes and frequently bipartisan politics—that has kept Guantánamo open, allowed for military commissions, and tolerated indefinite detentions.
Similarly, although the arcana of US surveillance law is rarely a subject of kitchen-table discussion, the broader national security consensus allowed Congress to amend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 2008, largely codifying and in many ways expanding the activities launched by President Bush in his controversial Terrorist Surveillance Program.
We were trying to center the CIA in this national consensus in 2006 as we adjusted the agency’s detention and interrogation program. Clearly the threat and operational landscape had changed since 2002–3. We knew far more about al-Qaeda, understood more of their operational planning, and could better sense the imminence of any dangers.
What was judged appropriate under one condition of threat might be questionable under another. Beyond the demands of law and conscience, we wanted a program that could be politically sustainable and popularly acceptable, and we adjusted accordingly.
Clearly there have been some—for high moral or low political reasons—who have objected to one or another action in the past decade. In the summer of 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder (who had earlier promised a reckoning for Bush administration counterterrorism practices) released the details of the CIA’s interrogation program and, if Newsweek is to be believed, the senior leadership of his Justice Department then waited for the “outrage” to begin.
Except that it didn’t, at least not nationally and not at the grassroots level. Whatever their opinion of this or that technique might have been, most Americans were reluctant to look back and to second-guess what had been done in their name and for their safety.
In short, most Americans seem reluctant to rule out the possibility that, throughout the decade now closing, people faced with difficult choices and unprecedented problems largely did what was appropriate and necessary at the time they had to decide and act .
Now, that’s a far cry from claiming universal agreement on all aspects of America’s counterterrorism agenda. Debates will certainly continue. But we should not let them obscure a remarkable consensus on the outlines of that agenda.
So for those who (like me) sometimes question President Obama’s commitment to his “we are at war” paradigm when, for example, he remands enemy combatants captured abroad to the American judicial process, we need to remind ourselves of the powerful continuities between this president and his predecessor.
And those who would like to draw sharp moral distinctions between the two administrations need to remind themselves how aggressive the current administration has been in a period of threat far less acute than the one experienced in 2002–3. Perhaps, before judging, they should ask what current leaders—and the nation at large—would consider to be lawful and appropriate if faced with another catastrophic attack.
Michael V. Hayden was director of the CIA from 2006 to 2009.