Director for National Intelligence James Clapper

Director for National Intelligence James Clapper Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP File Photo

Banqueters and the Spying News Bombshell

Unexpected juxtapositions at an annual gala.

No one planned it that way, but the twin blockbuster stories exposing national security agencies’ collection of domestic telephone logs and foreigners’ Web traffic made for some surreal juxtapositions on Friday at the annual banquet of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance.

With the current and past directors of national intelligence at the Omni Shoreham to honor former CIA and National Security Agency chief Michael Hayden, the result in speeches and interviews with intel professionals was a gumbo of outrage, worry and humor.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the black-tie crowd of more than 700 he would “address the elephant in the room” and proceeded, to applause, to denounce “the unauthorized leaks as reprehensible and egregious.” Clapper characterized the program as completely legal, debated and reauthorized by Congress under strict oversight and by court order “to make our nation safe and secure.”

He then cracked a few jokes. “Some of you expressed surprise that I showed up—so many emails to read!” Clapper said. Greeting fellow banqueter John Pistole, the administrator of the Transportation Security Administration who recently reversed a planned policy to permit air travelers to carry certain knives on planes, Clapper said, “John, can I borrow your pocket knife?”

INSA Chairman John Negroponte, the nation’s first director of national Intelligence, commended Clapper for focusing on his job despite “a number of distractions that have been circulating in Washington for the last few days.”

In a session with reporters, Negroponte, now a private consultant, said he was not surprised by the revelations, since “none of this is inconsistent with what I understood the practices to be.” The intel agencies are sticking to “metadata, not the content of phone calls—like knowing what’s on the outside of an envelope,” he said. The program was approved by the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court, and there are no restrictions on gathering intelligence about foreigners, Negroponte said.

Asked if he could cite any examples of how enemies of the United States might exploit the exposure of the secret data captures, Negroponte said no, but “two months ago, we really did miss something in Boston [in the fatal bombing at the Marathon], and we were asked why didn’t we see it . So we’re dammed if we do and damned if we don’t, but that doesn’t mean we don’t explain policy.”

Negroponte and newly installed INSA president Joseph DeTrani stressed to reporters that INSA, a membership organization of veteran diplomats, academics and corporate thinkers, is geared not to matching the news cycle but to think pieces and policy analysis in such crucial areas as cybersecurity.

The tributes to Hayden, winner of INSA’s 29th annual William Oliver Baker award (named for a Bell Labs inventor and statesman), included such biographical factoids as his having put himself through Dusquesne University working as a bellhop, caddy and Fuller Brush salesman. His hometown of Pittsburgh recently named a street for him.

Now doing private-sector consulting in Washington, Hayden said he still gets the morning CIA email news summary and when he awoke one day last week, he’d gotten the biggest clip file ever, some 180 pages with “words like PRISM and metadata.” He told himself, “It’s a great day to be a former senior intelligence leader. “

Getting serious, Hayden said the newly exposed telecommunications data-monitoring program is a “direct descendent” of a program he started at the NSA in 2002, adding that “the political elite will criticize us for not doing enough when danger threatens, but then after we’ve made us safer, the same people will criticize us for doing too much.”

Being CIA director, Hayden said, “was the best job I ever had. I could make a decision at 8:30 at night and come in by morning and find [all the relevant] pictures on my desk. “ True, the job involves “an awful lot of 2:00 a.m. phone calls,” he added, “but I would tell myself, Hayden, whatever you decide, you’re going to live with it for the rest of your life. Then, I would put my arms around the one human being who gives me unconditional love no matter what decision I made,” his wife Jeanine.

In perhaps the evening’s most unusual moment, DNI Clapper, after aides had passed out lyric sheets, led the crowd in a teasing summary of Hayden’s career sung to the tune of the hymns of the four military services. He was accompanied on electric guitar by INSA member Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, a defense technology enthusiast and former member of the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan.