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Former NSA director Michael Hayden explains surveillance programs in “Inside the NSA” event

Michael Hayden made no apologies for National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance, admitting that the NSA steals information from citizens to keep them safe, in his revealing talk about the NSA to the Stanford community.

“I freely admit, the NSA steals stuff,” said Hayden. “We’re really good at it. We’re better than the Chinese. We steal stuff to keep you free and keep you safe.”

Hayden, director of the NSA from 1999 to 2005, spoke Wednesday night at Cemex Auditorium, the first event in a new Stanford speaker series titled “The Security Conundrum.” Hayden spoke about many issues and misconceptions regarding the NSA, such as the stealing of data and invasions of privacy.

“Privacy is the line we continually negotiate for ourselves as unique creatures of God and as social animals,” Hayden said. “There are some things that the community has a right to know, and there are other things that the community does not have a right to know.

“Where that line is actually depends on the totality of the circumstances.”

After the events of 9/11, Hayden explained that the NSA was accused of being “far too timid and far too cautious” with the handling of terrorist communications within America. New surveillance programs were established in response, such as Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, allowing the NSA to collect phone records from virtually every person in America.

“[The] 215 program,” Hayden said, “those were all the products of that requirement, and that was the lightest touch we could devise on American privacy that would give us a reasonable chance to detecting that kind of communication.

“We will keep America free by making Americans feel safe again.”

But do Americans actually feel safer with these programs in place? After Edward Snowden leaked classified documents detailing the surveillance programs, the NSA and American government have faced a lot of controversy, criticism and suspicion.

In conversation with Hayden, moderator Amy Zegart, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and an affiliated faculty member at the Center for International Security and Cooperation, mentioned a study where only 16 percent of Americans believe the NSA is telling the truth about the 215 program and its inability to monitor content.

“Have any of you made your phone bill talk?” Hayden asked. “This is not electronic collection; these are billing records from the companies. It is physical. To listen to content of those calls would not just violate the laws of the United States, that would violate the laws of physics.”

The skepticism of the NSA isn’t only in America. During the Q&A session, one European student asked why should he trust the American government when they are “tapping [his] leaders’ phones and collecting [their] communications.”

“Espionage is an accepted international practice,” Hayden said. ”Any government that is worthy of the respect of its people conducts espionage to keep the citizens safe. I make no apologies for America’s espionage.”

Hayden reaffirmed that what the NSA does is not that bad when compared to other countries, saying that America’s intelligence community is the most transparent on the planet and that “no one else is in our zip code.” However, Hayden recognized the need to be even more transparent in order for the program to survive.

“We have to give the American people enough information to at least tolerate, if not support, what the government does to keep them safe,” Hayden said.

James Bradbury ’16 admired Hayden’s approach to the issues.

“I think it’s wonderful that someone [has an] attitude so honest and [a] way of talking so forthright,” Bradbury said. “It’s better as a representative of his side than a lawyer going up there and talking about the detailed constitutional questions.”

Others, like Sojourner Ahebee ’18, were not as impressed, claiming that while informative, Hayden’s apparent media training made the message seem disingenuous.

“I’m really curious to see what he thinks as an American citizen, and not as someone who works for the American government, and I wished he would have addressed us in that way,” Ahebee said.

Contact Jeremy Quach at quach ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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