The real problem with Mike Hayden’s nomination

The real concern about Gen. Michael Hayden’s nomination as the nation’s top spy – if the CIA director can still be called that – should focus on whether he is too much a student of electronic prying and not enough of a supporter of the human kind that experts believe has become increasingly crucial in the age of terrorism.

Gen. William “Wild Bill” Donovan hatched the concept that permanently institutionalized a central approach to spying in the late ’40s until technology began to encroach on the process three decades ago. “Donovan’s boys,” as they were referred to affectionately, were the remnants of that swashbuckling band of intrepid stalwarts who performed so courageously in World War II under the imprimatur of the Office of Strategic Services.

To thwart the Red Menace and to secure democracy, nearly anything the legendary special-operations section devised had the tacit approval of a succession of U.S. presidents. Their activities extended from Havana to Vietnam, from Europe to the Middle East and into Africa, one big sprawl of in-country networks populated by hired foreign assets and overseen by a relatively small handful of so-called “controls,” stationed in American embassies but independent of the State Department, including the ambassadors.

Despite some noticeable exceptions like the Bay of Pigs and the unsuccessful plots to assassinate Fidel Castro and other failures, the system worked well. Their hands may have been considered bloody if one were a believer in gentlemanly diplomacy, but there is little doubt America would have been up the proverbial creek without them in an era when a whole lot of the globe had yet to realize that Karl Marx couldn’t feed his family.

Then came the busybodies and the political aspirants, clucking their tongues and pointing their fingers despite their own complicity by having looked the other way for years. Chief among them was an ambitious but not terribly bright senator from Idaho, Frank Church, whose sensational hearings into the perceived and real manipulations of foreign governments and the “wet ops” that did in President Diem in Vietnam and Patrice Lumumba in Africa not only sounded the death knell for the old ways, but also much of the nation’s intelligence capability. The double-dome plotters with mystical names like James Jesus Angleton ducked under their Langley desks seldom to be heard from again. Morale plummeted in Virginia.

They were replaced by satellites and electronic gizmos said to be able to hear a mouse break wind in the Kremlin, an approach that was safer and cleaner and carried none of the liability of the previous concept. Hello, signal intelligence (SIGINT), and farewell, human (HUMINT).

Unfortunately, the new approach never was as effective as the old. So when people got kidnapped and spirited into the rat warrens of the Middle East, there was no way of finding out where they were, no human incentive to drop a dime as a means of earning a buck. When a spy in the sky relayed that a terrorist leader was encamped at a certain location and a cruise missile was sent, it often blew up empty factories or desert flowers or innocent people.

Suddenly, it was the National Security Agency that was important, the big electronic operation run by military men like Michael Hayden. Nothing, including constitutionally protected routine calls at home and abroad, was safe from its prying eyes and ears. Big Brother had arrived a bit later than George Orwell predicted, but certainly with all his scary inclinations.

Amazingly, it was discovered that the elimination of all that on-the-ground capacity severely damaged the intelligence process _ one can’t always find Osama bin Laden by listening to phone calls, reading e-mails or tracking him with satellites, especially since he is aware you are doing it. One needs to have the ability to speak his language, to infiltrate his operations, to understand the unique properties of his culture and family. In other words, what is needed is what we had and destroyed.

Now the question is: Does Hayden, the NSA man, understand this? Does he know the value of the legacy of Donovan, Allen Dulles, Richard Helms, Bill Colby and, of course, Angleton, with all their warts, or has he been named to further diminish the CIA’s importance? The Senate should ask him, pointedly.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)