“The goal of the CIA is to learn other nations’ secrets,” noted General Michael Hayden, and he should know. Hayden was the Director of both the CIA (2006-2009) and the National Security Agency (1999-2005) and, most recently, a “guest lecturer” to a group SHSU students who traveled to Houston, Texas to learn more about intelligence operations. The lecture, hosted by the World Affairs Council, covered wiretapping, prioritizing threats, presidential performance, and balancing work and family.The most pressing question from students focused on wiretapping, a topic that General Hayden seemed to anticipate. Hayden ensured students that the government did not record their calls, but acknowledged that the government did document the calls, taking note of who called whom and how long each call lasted—logging, as General Hayden referred to it, some 3 billion “phone events” per day.
This massive data collection comes in handy when other information falls into place. Hayden provided the example of the government capturing “Ali Bin Badguy” and confiscating “Mr. Badguy’s” phone which, in turn, allows them to locate his calls off the “phone-event” database and identify other potential terrorist connections. Hayden emphasized, however, that the government did not record calls made by citizens, at least not without a warrant.
SHSU Senior Coby Steele veered away from the popular wire-tapping issue and asked about operational management. “How,” he wanted to know, “do the multiple acronym agencies work together to prioritize threats?” General Hayden acknowledged that it was a problem, but not for the reasons people think. “The problem,” he noted, “is that we have so much data. It’s difficult to ‘connect the dots’ when there are so many dots that the page is black. But that’s because we are good at collecting data and working together.”
Hayden, who worked directly for Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama, noted that it wasn’t just the intelligence agencies working together. He praised President Bush and Obama for putting aside their differences and maintaining a consistent policy on intelligence: “There were fewer changes in 2009 when the Obama administration took over from Bush than there were in 2005, when Bush transitioned from his first term to his second.”
Brian King, a senior at SHSU, moved away from policy issues altogether and asked about the personal life of a CIA employee. “How,” asked King, “do you balance a family while running the CIA?” Hayden acknowledged the difficulties but said that he and his wife took “vacations together and traveled together for work,” unless he was heading into a war zone, in which case he traveled alone.
Although the SHSU students had almost an hour with General Hayden, not all of the SHSU students asked questions. Ashley Richardson, an Accounting major and first-semester freshman from Magnolia, Texas, learned through listening. “This is an amazing real-world educational experience with the former CIA Director,” noted Richardson. “You just don’t get these types of experiences in high school.”
King agreed, noting, “I’m not sure you get these opportunities at any other college. The CIA Director can listen to our conversations whenever he wants,” King added, tongue-in-cheek, “but how often can students listen to his conversations—let alone participate in them?”
The opportunity to interact directly with General Hayden was coordinated between the World Affairs Council and SHSU’s Center for Law, Engagement, And Politics (LEAP), which promotes learning across diverse disciplines. In the past month, students have met the former President of Mexico, Felipe Calderon; discussed career paths with a half dozen Texas legislators; and attended a presentation by former Senior Advisor to President Obama, David Axelrod; met former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card—while also attending law-school related activities and engaging in volunteer service across the community.
“Our goal,” noted Mike Yawn, Director of the LEAP Center, “is to provide opportunities that open new worlds for the students. SHSU faculty work hard to do that in the classroom, the University provides institutional support for similar outcomes outside of the classroom, and that combination will help us produce the next generation of public leaders in the state of Texas.”