Hayden: No One Ever Warned Us Against Overreacting to 9/11

A damning admission from a former head of the CIA and NSA

After the Senate released its torture report, Michael Hayden, who formerly led both the CIA and the NSA, granted an interview to NBC News. Under questioning by Brian Williams, he provided no persuasive rebuttal to the report's findings. But he did offer a defense of America's intelligence community that doubles as an unwitting indictment of the country's leadership in the post-9/11 era. Here's what Hayden said as if it reflects well on the people who were in charge:

I was in government for ten years after 9/11, and let me tell ya, a phrase I never heard from anybody in any position of authority: 'Whatever you guys do about this terrorism threat, please, please don't overreact.' Never heard it, Brian.  

Like so much of what Hayden says, this is factually false. Members of Congress were in a position of Constitutional authority, and some pleaded with the Bush Administration to avoid overreacting to 9/11, as Russ Feingold and Barbara Lee can attest. But let's suppose Hayden was speaking of executive branch authority figures, in accordance with the dangerous but common view that the executive is all powerful in emergencies. It's believable that neither George W. Bush nor Dick Cheney nor Don Rumsfeld warned bureaucrats beneath them against overreacting to the terror threat.

What's staggering is that Hayden still hasn't figured out what a catastrophic misstep that was. Overreacting to the terrorist threat caused the U.S. to launch a war of choice against Iraq that killed thousands more Americans than Osama Bin Laden did at a cost expected to reach $6 trillion, plus thousands of lost limbs and PTSD cases.  Overreacting to terrorism caused intrusive ethnic profiling of New York City Muslims that led to zero terrorism leads and intrusive surveillance on the phone calls of American citizens that stopped zero terror plots.

One needn't be a particularly sophisticated student of terrorist-group tactics to understand that a superpower can harm itself more by overreacting than by doing too little. As David Kilcullen told Jim Fallows, "It’s al-Qaeda plus our response that creates the existential danger.” But if Hayden is to be believed, no one in a position of authority ever warned him to be wary of going too far, and he apparently lacked the prudence and foresight to guard against such excesses for himself.

Many American officials performed no better. Thus the world we live in today.

With one successful plot that killed 3,000 people, Osama Bin Laden baited America's ruling class into multiple foreign invasions, significant abrogations of civil liberties, and a loss of moral high ground as the world gazed in horror at our descent into torture. Yet an experienced intel official still finds it absurd to think he should've taken more care not to overreact. His heuristics are a poor guide to reality.