“Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror”, by Michael V. Hayden

“Playing to the Edge” is a memoir of General Mike Hayden’s stint as Director of the NSA and then CIA from 1999 until 2009. These were challenging times for intelligence agencies as they fought elusive terrorists in a post-9/11 world and sailed the uncharted waters of new and rapidly growing technologies and all the legal and moral issues associated with accessing and using it in an effort to protect our nation.

If I could provide a tagline for this book it would be: “Intelligence. It’s complicated.”

One of the things that makes it complicated is the constant balance that has to be maintained between national security and our constitutional rights, particularly our 4th amendment rights (search and seizure). I was pleased to read about how conscientious agency leadership and employees were about vetting their efforts with their attorneys and the DOJ to make sure they were acting within the law. The executive and legislative branches are also very sensitive to this and provide additional oversight, which brings me to another reason it’s complicated.

Agencies like the CIA have an unbelievable number of constituents it has to deal with and based on General Hayden’s account, as well as what I’ve seen in the press, many make sport of lobbing verbal grenades at the CIA and accuse them of all kinds of heinous things, even when there’s no way they could have the facts needed to make such allegations. These constituents include the President, Congress, other departments (like DOJ), allies’ intelligence agencies, the press and the American people. Particularly troubling to me were General Hayden’s accounts of the attacks his agencies had to endure from Congress, who should have been treating them like valued teammates but instead were treating them like the enemy. Weird.

And now please indulge me for a short rant. I first observed this bizarre Congressional behavior right after the disastrous rollout of the Obamacare website. I’ve been a part of some large, rocky technology rollouts so I was curious about what went wrong. Hoping to find out more, I tuned into the Congressional hearings on C-SPAN. What I saw was a public flogging of the technology team and a bunch of clueless Congress men and women asking questions clearly written by slightly more tech-savvy staff members.Many of the Congress people likely didn’t understand the questions they were asking nor the answers that were being provided. It was theater designed to show the public how self-righteously outraged they were on their behalf. It wasn’t constructive at all. The project team didn’t need a beating. I guarantee you they already felt like crap. And instead of spending time in that farce, the team should have been working on the problem. It was awful to watch.

Okay, back to the book. General Hayden also provides insights into sensitive topics like interrogation techniques, use of drones and the Edward Snowden leak. He includes some information about secrets and how they were collected, but he’s limited on what he can share and besides that’s not what this book is about.

General Hayden uses a surprisingly casual tone, freely using words like “stuff” and “kerfuffle”. I think it works for him, as he comes across as an approachable public servant with a hint of humility (although his credentials are impressive and rather intimidating ). What didn’t quite work for me was how this casualness extended to the organization of the book. It tended to wander and it was sometimes hard to follow.

Overall, I give this book a qualified recommendation. I think it will appeal to a niche audience, one who likes C-SPAN or who consider themselves to be political junkies. Or if you just want an insider’s perspective on a very complex topic, this is a good read.

P.S. Thanks to my good friend Julia for the recommendation!

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3 thoughts on ““Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror”, by Michael V. Hayden

  1. Thanks for the nonfiction rec! Thought I’d share that I’m reading Lady Bird Johnson’s White House Diary. It’s a throwback (first published in 1970s?), but so interesting from a historical perspective. She’s very gracious, which comes through in her writing, but she’s also funny, wry, and candid. She began the diary in her first days “on the job,” so the beginning is quite poignant about life after Kennedy’s assassination. I think what you might like, ultimately, is her uplifting, positive take, even when things are looking bleak (i.e., Vietnam). It’s not a pollyanna perspective by any stretch–more that she manages to show strength and grace in tough circumstances.

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    • Oh, that does sound good! Thanks for the recommendation. I never used to be a big fan of nonfiction but I’ve been reading some really good ones lately. I must have been reading the wrong books before!

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