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Director's Remarks at the Los Angeles World Affairs Council

Remarks by Central Intelligence Agency Director Michael Hayden
at the
Los Angeles World Affairs Council

(as prepared for delivery)

September 16, 2008

Good afternoon. Thanks for that kind introduction, and thank you all for inviting me. It’s a pleasure and privilege to be in Los Angeles and to speak to this Council.

As eventful as the world may be right now, the development that is likely to have the most far-reaching consequences will be a domestic one—the election of a new American president. From the standpoint of the Intelligence Community, it’ll be the first time since 1952 that neither candidate is an incumbent president or vice president. It also will be the first transition since the office of Director of National Intelligence was created, and that will be a new experience for all of us.

CIA is the Community’s executive agent in supporting briefings for Senator McCain and Senator Obama, reflecting our role in producing the President’s Daily Brief. After the election, there will be two daily PDB briefings—one for President Bush and another for the president-elect. The new national security team will be setting up shop, too, so it promises to be a very busy time for everyone involved.

The new administration will be a great opportunity for the Agency. I see it as a chance to demonstrate our expertise and insight into virtually every foreign issue affecting this country. We’ll get to know all our new customers and learn how best to serve them. But our fundamental responsibility—protecting the citizens of this nation—will remain the same.

Today I’d like to talk about how CIA keeps America safe from weapons of mass destruction, particularly the nuclear threat. Meeting that critical challenge has been a core responsibility ever since the Agency’s founding in 1947.

In fact, the very first CIA officer to die in the line of duty had been gathering data on the Soviet nuclear program. Douglas Mackiernan served in the desolate reaches of western China, one of those brave operatives who worked our top intelligence target along the periphery of the Soviet Union.

“Mack,” as he was called, was an MIT physics major conversant in Russian and Chinese, a highly resourceful and perceptive officer who had to work with some pretty basic equipment given the remoteness of his post. His primary tasks were to investigate Moscow’s access to local uranium deposits and report any sign of nuclear testing in Soviet Central Asia.

Mackiernan’s mission was cut short by the rapid western advance of the Chinese Communists after their revolution in 1949. He escaped by setting out on an epic seven-month trek across deserts and mountains. He managed to make it all the way to the frontier of Tibet, where he should have found sanctuary. Tragically, he was shot by Tibetan guards who had not yet received word that an American was coming and that he should be granted safe passage.

Douglas Mackiernan’s story speaks to the dedication and courage our officers have brought to our mission for six decades. CIA has targeted the WMD threat in all its forms, from the massive arsenals of rival nations to the deadly aspirations of terrorists. To say that we’re focused on 21st century challenges doesn’t mean for a second that we’ve forgotten those of the 20th—or that we aren’t looking for the emerging threats of tomorrow.

We closely analyze, as we should and as we must, the WMD and missile programs of countries throughout the world. But as attentive as we are in tracking existing weapons programs, the greater challenge lies in detecting those developing in secrecy. CIA is always watching for signs that states and subnational groups might be taking steps to acquire nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons.

Our mission is made a lot more difficult by the fact that access to sensitive technologies is no longer the exclusive domain of a few advanced nations. Dual-use technologies and scientific experts travel easily in our global economy, making it critical to follow those movements and know the experts.

But because the materials and expertise are so prevalent and have perfectly legitimate applications, the very fact that someone is interested in nuclear, chemical, or biological technology is not enough to prove they are interested in weapons. A WMD program fundamentally centers on political intent.

By that measure alone, there is no greater national security threat facing the United States than al-Qa‘ida and its associates. Bin Ladin has said repeatedly that he considers acquisition of nuclear weapons “a religious duty.” And we know that al-Qa‘ida remains determined to attack our country in ways that inflict maximum death and destruction.

We are fortunate that those with the clearest intent to acquire and use weapons of mass destruction are also the least capable of developing them. But the potential destruction from an improvised nuclear device—no matter how elementary—is so great that all that really matters to CIA is that we know terrorists are determined to use them.

We fight this threat on two fronts—the supply side and the demand side. CIA has a group devoted to identifying, penetrating, and disrupting WMD-related proliferation networks. That group is at the heart of a highly integrated effort, drawing on the expertise of our own analysts and intelligence collectors and their colleagues throughout government. Together with our foreign partners, we account for and help safeguard WMD and related equipment worldwide. We identify the illegal sellers and buyers of technology and expertise. And we use covert action to disrupt illicit transfers.

At the same time, we work—methodically, patiently, tirelessly—to penetrate and destroy terrorist networks. Operating against both ends of the chain is critical to detecting and defeating any nuclear plot against America or our allies.

CIA also focuses on Iran and North Korea, two states whose WMD programs have threatened US interests, regional stability, and international arms control mechanisms like the Non-Proliferation Treaty. North Korea conducted a nuclear test two years ago, and the Intelligence Community judges their program produced enough plutonium for at least a half-dozen weapons. For its part, Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to produce nuclear weapons eventually. The question is not of capability, but intent.

A good analyst never presumes anything, least of all the plans of a foreign power. Intelligence officers can only assess capability and intent by starting with a clean slate and working from solid evidence and known behavior. That’s precisely what our Community did last year on Tehran’s nuclear program. The result was the Iran National Intelligence Estimate released in November.

The Iran NIE has had its share of criticism, which is typically what happens with a rigorous estimate that lays out what we know and don’t know about a highly contentious issue. It’s detailed, thorough, and—quite frankly—it’s courageous. We don’t have time to delve into the full scope of its findings, but here, very briefly, are the major judgments:

  • Until the fall of 2003, elements of Iran’s military were working to develop nuclear weapons and a warhead capable of delivering such weapons.
  • Tehran halted these efforts probably due to international scrutiny and exposure of previously undeclared nuclear work. We assessed that the nuclear weapons program had not resumed as of mid-2007, a conclusion that subsequent intelligence still supports.
  • And finally, Tehran at a minimum is keeping open its option to develop nuclear weapons.

What leads us to this last judgment? Again, it’s a matter of working back from actions. Why are they pushing forward with the uranium enrichment process at Natanz? They say it’s for civilian purposes, and yet they’ve rejected international offers of fissile material under proper controls.

Iran’s behavior, coming as it does after years of nuclear activity they concealed and continue to deny, invites nothing but suspicion. Why are they slow-rolling the International Atomic Energy Agency by not being forthcoming? And why are they willing to defy the United Nations and pay such a heavy price in terms of international isolation?

Those questions sound familiar. One could argue that Iraq under Saddam was just as confrontational and ultimately lacked the weapons we thought were there. But Iran’s leaders saw what happened to Saddam, and still they reject every opportunity to come clean with the world.

North Korea also poses a broad and complex challenge to global arms control. In fact, the WMD problem in Iran is compounded to no small degree by Tehran’s collaboration with North Korea on ballistic missiles.

Pyongyang’s WMD programs present a double threat. As part of North Korea’s arsenal, they endanger the peace and stability of northeastern Asia. As a source of global proliferation, they have been without equal since a joint operation with our British partners took down A.Q. Khan earlier this decade. Like Khan, whose network had been the world’s most dangerous black market supplier of nuclear technology, North Korea asks only two things of its customers: first, can they pay, and second, can they keep a secret.

Thanks to some outstanding intelligence work, we were able last year to spoil a big secret, a project that could have provided Syria with plutonium for nuclear weapons. I’d like to cover it here because it’s an excellent example of how CIA and our Community colleagues attack the problem of nuclear proliferation.

It was reported in the press last April, and you’re probably familiar with its outlines. We knew that North Korea and Syria had been cooperating since the late 1990s in the nuclear field. The depth of that relationship was revealed in the spring of last year, when we identified a nuclear reactor at Al-Kibar in the eastern desert of Syria. It was similar to the one at Yongbyon in North Korea, but with its outer structure heavily disguised.

The situation became critical late last summer, when we judged the facility could be nearing operation. The Al-Kibar reactor was destroyed the morning of 6 September 2007. The Syrians immediately cleared away the rubble and every trace of the building, stonewalling the IAEA when asked to explain. Their cover-up only underlined the intense secrecy of this project and the danger it had posed to a volatile region.

I want to focus briefly on two important aspects of this intelligence effort: the quality of tradecraft, in terms of collection and analysis, and the value of collaboration, both with colleagues in our government and with foreign services.

More than anything else, our work was a classic example of multidisciplinary, blue-collar analysis. We had a group of officers who started working overtime on this issue in April 2007 and kept at it for months. Virtually every form of intelligence—imagery, signals, human source, you name it—informed their assessments, so that they were never completely dependent on any single channel.

For instance, a report from a foreign partner initially identified the structure at Al-Kibar as a nuclear reactor similar to one in North Korea. But even without that piece of the puzzle, it wouldn’t have been long before we reached the same conclusion. We had previously identified the facility on imagery as a suspicious target. When pipes for a massive cooling system were laid out to the Euphrates River in the spring of 2007, there would have been little doubt this was a nuclear reactor. We would have known it was North Korean, too, given the quantity and variety of intelligence reports on nuclear ties between Pyongyang and Damascus.

Still, our analysts were open to alternative possibilities at every juncture. Early on, they applied a methodology that laid out the inconsistencies in each competing hypothesis. They carefully examined whether the building might be for another purpose, like a conventional power plant, or a water treatment facility. In each case, the arguments simply didn’t add up.  The reactor hypothesis was the most difficult to refute with the available evidence.

We then stepped back and tried to turn the basic premise on its head: OK, we’ve got a nuclear reactor in Syria built with North Korean help, but is it necessarily for a Syrian program? Might it have been built by North Korea for its own use, to secretly replace the Yongbyon reactor they had pledged to shut down? We took that hypothesis and worked very hard on it, but the mainstream theory held sway.

Finally, this was a success reached through close collaboration across agencies, departments, and governments. Dedicated officers at CIA, DIA, the Department of Energy, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, and NSA came together as a team, each bringing a specific expertise to the table. And this was an intelligence problem that required a wide range of knowledge. I already mentioned all the different forms of collection, but it also drew from a remarkable diversity of analytic firepower—everyone from nuclear technology and weapons experts to political and leadership analysts.

Our foreign partnerships too were critical to the final outcome. These relationships aren’t a matter of occasionally passing along a report that may or may not be useful. They’re more akin to working together on a complex equation over a long period. Each tries to solve a variable that in turn helps a partner solve another, and so on until we’ve cracked the case. That’s what good intelligence is all about.

I hope my remarks today have given you a better idea of how CIA is meeting the counterproliferation challenge. The Intelligence Community as a whole has taken great strides since the pre-war NIE on Iraq to strengthen our tradecraft, and I think it shows with both the Iran estimate and the Al-Kibar effort. The rigor of our sourcing, the emphasis on alternative analysis, and the integration of our expertise with those of our colleagues have never been greater.

By history and law, CIA has more connective tissue to the rest of the Intelligence Community than any other organization. We draw on those deep connections and other unique strengths—in human intelligence collection, all-source analysis, and foreign liaison partnerships—to fulfill a single overriding mission: protecting the American people. That remains the ultimate standard by which we measure our success.

I am tremendously proud of the men and women of CIA. They give far more than they get, and deserve far better than they usually receive. Like Doug Mackiernan before them, today’s CIA officers face the same risks, possess the same spirit, and serve the same cause. They accomplish their mission in ways I’m sure would make you proud, too.

Thank you very much.


Historical Document
Posted: Sep 16, 2008 03:21 PM
Last Updated: Mar 11, 2009 11:26 AM