Former NSA chief gets a taste of the other side of eavesdropping

The Washington Post

He should’ve taken the Quiet Car.

But that’s not what Michael Hayden did Thursday afternoon as he boarded Acela No. 2170, bound for New York.

Instead, Hayden nestled into a regular coach seat and soon began what for many travelers is an Amtrak ritual: talking, often nonstop, on a cellphone as the train rolled on.

A passenger a few seats away couldn’t help but be intrigued by the conversation, which included chatter about President Barack Obama’s 2008 BlackBerry, specially modified to block foreign eavesdropping.

Could it be James Clapper, Tom Matzzie wondered, referring to the director of national intelligence. But why would a sitting official be talking so openly about CIA black sites and rendition?

It took nearly half an hour, but then it clicked for Matzzie, a former Washington director of the political group MoveOn.org. He whipped out his phone and began tweeting.

“Former NSA spy boss Michael Hayden on Acela behind me blabbing ‘on background as a former senior admin official,’ ” Matzzie wrote. “Sounds defensive.”

For the next 15 minutes, the accidental eavesdropper gave periodic — and detailed — updates about Hayden’s conversation. At one point, Hayden dropped the name “Massimo,” which led Matzzie to suspect Hayden was talking to Time’s national security reporter, Massimo Calabresi.

“Michael Hayden on Acela giving reporters disparaging quotes about admin,” wrote Matzzie. ” ‘Remember, just refer as former senior admin.’ “

Reached by phone Thursday evening, Hayden denied chastising the Obama administration.

“I didn’t criticize the president,” Hayden told The Washington Post. “I actually said these are very difficult issues. I said I had political guidance, too, that limited the things that I did when I was director of NSA. Now that political guidance (for current officials) is going to be more robust. It wasn’t a criticism.”

He said he told Calabresi that Obama’s decision to use a BlackBerry put his communications at risk, and the NSA decided it needed to make his device more secure.

Matzzie, Hayden said, “got it terribly wrong.” He dismissed the tweets as a “(B.S.) story from a liberal activist sitting two seats from me on the train hearing intermittent snatches of conversation.” Calabresi did not return calls and an email seeking comment.

Meanwhile, passing through Philadelphia, Matzzie began to worry. Were his tweets about Hayden’s conversation going to get him in trouble? In the few minutes since he’d started, he’d managed to cause a small explosion on Twitter.

“I am totally busted I think,” he wrote in one tweet. That was followed shortly after by “No rendition yet. Do I have the (guts) to ask him for a photo? #haydenacela”

While a CIA strike team never burst onto the train, someone must have tipped Hayden off, because when the former official finished one of his calls, he got up — and walked straight over.

“Would you like a real interview?” he asked Matzzie.

“I’m not a reporter,” Matzzie replied.

“Everybody’s a reporter,” said Hayden.

The two proceeded to have a conversation about the Fourth Amendment and the NSA’s surveillance activities. They agreed to disagree, but before they parted, Hayden posed for a photo with Matzzie.

And then Hayden, who stepped down as CIA director in 2009 and is now a principal in the Chertoff Group, a national security consultancy, swept off the train at Newark, New Jersey.

Matzzie was overwhelmed by the reaction on Twitter to his dispatches.

“I haven’t been able to keep up with it,” he said. “I think the best tweet I saw was the lesson, ‘Don’t mess with Tom Matzzie on the Quiet Car.’ “

“But,” he added, “we’re not on the Quiet Car.”