Recap: Hayden, Whipple Discuss ‘Spymasters’ and Leadership in U.S. Intelligence

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Originally published on November 11, 2020

In one of his first extended appearances since suffering a stroke two years ago, former CIA and NSA director General (ret.) Michael V. Hayden engaged author Chris Whipple in a wide-ranging hour-long conversation about the state of intelligence in the modern era.

View the recording.

Whipple, a New York Times best-selling author, recently published a new book, The Spymasters: How the CIA Directors Shape History and the Future. Hayden, who was joined in the discussion by Larry Pfeiffer, director of the Michael V. Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy, and International Security, is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government.

About 250 viewers attended the virtual discussion. See the recording of the program, Spymasters: A Conversation with Chris Whipple.

Intelligence leadership is complex, said Whipple, who interviewed previous CIA and other intelligence agency leaders for his book. Speaking truth to power is not the easiest task, and as the intelligence community is continuing to be politicized, the topic of intelligence leadership has become more important than ever.

“Leon Panetta did a wonderful job,” said Hayden. “He went to the president [Barack Obama] and said ‘Mr. President, you aren’t going to like this, but I’m going to tell you anyway.’ And that’s good. That’s very good.”

We may have a new CIA director in 2021, and that person will need to ask themselves what lessons can be learned from past leaders like Dulles, Helms, and Tenet? Or, more recently, from Hayden, Panetta, and Haspel?

“One of the things I did learn,” Whipple said, “is that some of the attributes that make great White House chiefs of staff, also serve CIA directors well. And one of those, perhaps the most important of those qualities, is the ability to walk into the Oval Office, close the door, and tell the president what he doesn’t want to hear.

“That was an essential quality for a great CIA director,” Whipple added.

Hayden reminisced on one of his own experiences with that quality.

“One day I was at Camp David, right before Christmas, and there was a problem,” said Hayden. “And I walked into the president’s office and said, ‘We’ve got to talk about this.’ We talked about it for an hour…You have to talk to the president directly.”