“Oh come on, how many of you think Barack Obama wiretapped the Trump Tower? All their hands went up. Almost unanimous,” said retired four-star general Michael Hayden.
Hayden, a former director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (2006-2009) and the National Security Agency (1999-2005) was retelling an incident from his recently released book, “The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies” in front of an audience that filled MIT’s 425-seat Huntington Hall (Room 10-250). Hayden was describing a scene at a local bar in his native Pittsburgh where he met with people who he might have known growing up there or was related to, but who now hold sharply divergent views.
“I used to run the NSA. I kinda know how this works. Number one, they wouldn’t do it. Number two, the plumbing doesn’t work that way. They almost certainly couldn’t do it,” he said. When asked, “What evidence do you have?” the bargoers said, simply, “Obama.” When asked, “Where do you get your news?” the answer was invariably, “Facebook.”
The anecdote aptly explains the dilemmas Hayden attempts to tackle in his book, which deals with the ways in which the basic adherence to truth and facts has been eroded since Donald Trump announced he was running for president, and what the consequences are for what he calls “fact-based institutions.” The judiciary, the media, the intelligence community, and others are suffering in an era when everyone’s version of the truth is up for grabs, Hayden explains — especially when the intelligence community he knows so well is being attacked. While he does not predict societal collapse or civil war in North America, he said he is worried about the “assault on truth” that is currently taking place.
“The veneer of civilization is something that is quite thin,” he said. “It has to be protected and nurtured.”
While most of the younger generations might not be aware of this — including some of the younger generations at MIT — he said “civilization as we know it” is not a given.
While this phenomenon can be witnessed all over the world, Hayden stressed that it presents a particular problem for U.S. society.
“America was a concept under which we built a nation. If you remove the concept you remove the basic fundamental character.”
The United States was formed on the basis of the ideas of the Enlightenment, with adaptations and improvements being made as societies and “civilization” developed. Since then, those who rejected these ideas represented the negative phenomena in society and were often overpowered by the progressive or forward-thinking mainstream. Now, those who represent the negative segments of society are threatening to become mainstream.
“This is a rejection of the way of thinking that developed in the 16th and 17th centuries in the Enlightenment. I don’t want to overemphasize this but the Western man, after that period, was generally pragmatic. Our definition of truth was the best working theory we could develop at the moment of objective reality. That dynamic is what I think is under threat,” Hayden explained.
Hayden described the predicament that our society currently finds itself as a three-layer cake with each layer representing the major “players.”
“The basic layer and therefore the most important one is us,” he said. “It is the American population where our political culture is moving in the direction of a post-truth reality.”
This is where the group from the anecdote fits in, as well as everyone else. Although Hayden places all of American society in the biggest layer at the bottom, he says that people who compose the third layer are very different. “The winds of globalization have been at my back for 50 years. The people I grew up with, the winds of globalization have largely been in their face and the uneven effects of globalization have created grievances,” he said.
The grievances are more cultural rather than economic, but it creates the conditions for people with seemingly “simple” answers to appeal to their grievances and “tribe loyalties” and actually make their case to them. Also like the group in the opening anecdote, this group relies on social media outlets for their news — as well as their facts.
“Social media knows you as well as you know yourself. The business model for social media is to keep you there, keep you on the site, so it gives you something that’s pleasing to you,” Hayden continued. “But the longer you’re there the more you want [it]. The core algorithm keeps giving you [that]. Which in this version are more extreme versions of the views you had when you entered the enterprise in the first place.”
He also emphasized the fact that working-class communities are those who are particularly susceptible to the divisions.
“It is the elites of the world who are uniting,” he said. “And it’s the workers of the world who are reaching for their national flags.”
The second layer of the cake is the Trump administration. “Objective reality is not the distinctive departure point for what Trump says or does,” he said.
He offered another anecdote, a conversation he had with a retired PDB briefer — someone who delivers the president’s daily highly confidential briefings. They compared what sort of president Trump was.
“He said, Mike we have had presidents who have argued with us — that was my experience with George W. Bush. We’ve had presidents who simply lie; the Nixonian image comes to mind. They don’t argue about objective reality, they just lie about it. He offered the view that Trump isn’t either of those.”
Trump, the retired briefer argued, was someone who “fully believed his version of events,” Hayden said.
“Does the thought process there make a distinction between the past I need and the past that happened? And the answer is maybe not, which is a little bit different than lying.”
According to the briefer, the only proof of veracity that the president seems to need is “a lot of people saying they agree with him and if he can make it trending.”
The third layer are the Russians, but according to Hayden they are “the least of our problems.” Unlike layers three and two, which actively participate in questioning the truth, those in Russia who want to affect U.S. society base their interference on “existing divisions” — divisions that were created by layer one and layer two. He doesn’t doubt that the Russians were involved in trying to influence the 2016 elections, but whether anyone in the U.S. was involved depends on the results of the ongoing Mueller probe. Whether or not they influenced the votes is “unknowable and unmeasurable,” he said.
“What the Russians did we would call a covert influence campaign. The specifics of a covert influence campaign are clear: You never create a division in a society,” he said. “You identify pre-existing divisions and you exploit and worsen the pre-existing divisions.”
Their motives, he said, were to “mess with our heads,” punish Hillary Clinton, and delegitimize her as the inevitable winner, as well as hope to push votes in Trump’s direction.
The event was sponsored by the MIT Center for International Studies as part of its flagship public event series, the MIT Starr Forum. The forum brings to campus leading authorities to discuss pressing issues in the world of international relations and U.S. foreign policy.