On January 26th, the Michael V. Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy, and International Security at George Mason University hosted its first event of 2021, featuring two distinguished former intelligence leaders. Hayden Center Director Larry Pfeiffer moderated the hour and a half discussion between former Director of the CIA and Director of the National Security Agency (NSA), and Hayden Center namesake, General (ret.) Michael V. Hayden, and former deputy and acting Director of CIA Michael Morell. Both intelligence leaders offered their perspectives on the current state of American intelligence in the aftermath of the Trump administration and their outlook for the immediate future as President Biden establishes his national security and intelligence teams.
Michael Morell kicked off the event by discussing his public withdrawal from consideration for CIA director in the Biden administration. Mr. Morell began by highlighting that he was never under formal consideration for the position, but he ultimately decided that it was in the best interest of the CIA and country to publicly withdraw his name to avoid relitigating the Agency’s role in the enhanced interrogation program that plagued previous confirmation hearings. Mr. Morell lamented that even though the program was approved at the time by the President, followed by the National Security Council, and briefed to select members of Congress, CIA was left to shoulder the burden of blame alone.
As moderator, Larry Pfeiffer segued to discussion evening’s topic, centered on the theme of General Hayden’s 2018 book, The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies. The conversation focused on challenges the intelligence community (IC), as well as the country as a whole, face with increased prioritization of emotional satisfaction over objective fact. Overall, Mr. Morell and General Hayden hit on a wide range of topics affecting the intelligence community and America’s current relationship with truth and fact. They discussed Biden’s national security leadership appointments, personnel qualifications, processes, and the political climate related internally to the intelligence community and externally to the general public.
General Hayden and Michael Morell spent a large portion of the discussion reflecting on the IC’s rocky relationship with members of the previous presidential administration and how intelligence agencies emerged “bruised” from the past four years. Although they did not typically view the Trump administration’s impact on the intelligence community favorably, they were willing to point to a few key foreign policy accomplishments and expanded IC budgets as net gains. Shifting their gaze forward, they reflected on their previous experience to offer glimpses of what intelligence may look like under a Biden administration and the challenges the intelligence community may experience under new executive leadership.
Finally, Mr. Morell and General Hayden concluded with steps the Biden administration could take to reconcile damage to the intelligence community from the last four years. Mr. Morell offered possible steps that would build trust: receiving daily intelligence briefings, site visits to intelligence facilities, and ultimately assuring that community that they will be heard, even when their analysis conflicts with political convenience. Both Michael Morell and General Hayden’s service in the intelligence community spans multiple presidential transitions and administrations over decades of public service. Their unique insights into the intelligence community and new administration will surely be invaluable as the country moves forward.
Video of the entire event is available here.
Nicole Altomare is a volunteer at the Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy, and International Security and a graduate student in the Master’s in Public Policy Program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.