The CIA’s Constant Confesser: Michael Hayden Just Can’t Stop Admitting Stuff

Is it just me, or is CIA director Michael Hayden the least secretive spy ever? First he admitted that the CIA waterboarded detainees. Of course, most of us already knew that, but he helpfully laid out the exact details of the dirty work to Congress. Next, he went ahead and confirmed that at least some of those interrogators were paid outside contractors, rather than the highly trained CIA operatives we thought they were. This news shed even more light on the program, if also somewhat muddying the legal waters. To top it all off, yesterday we learned that on a recent trip to London, Hayden informed the British government that, contrary to previous assurances, the U.S. actually did use UK territory for rendition flights. Oops.

In an internal statement to agency employees on Thursday, Hayden said that a new in-house review of CIA records had turned up the “administrative” error. He made no mention of what prompted the review. This in itself is strange: after all, for years now the agency has maintained a hard line on rendition flights, often flat-out denying their existence. For the most part, details about the program have emerged only as a result of foreign governments’ own investigations. In short, the CIA doesn’t tell us about stuff when they don’t have to. So why the sudden openness?

It could be that Hayden is trying to restore the agency’s credibility at a time when its ethics are the focus of increasing scrutiny. His remarks to his staff suggest as much:

The refueling, conducted more than five years ago, lasted just a short time. But it happened. That we found this mistake ourselves, and that we brought it to the attention of the British government, in no way changes or excuses the reality that we were in the wrong. An important part of intelligence work, inherently urgent, complex and uncertain, is to take responsibility for errors and to learn from them.

Historically, “take responsibility for errors and learn from them” has not been a hallmark of the Bush administration’s approach to governing. But Hayden could very well still be CIA director in 2009—provided, of course, that the new administration approves of his work. Is he doing penance now in anticipation of a new government, hoping to shore up his Democratic bona fides? Might not be so easy, since every new confession means a new round of damage control.

—Casey Miner