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Hayden has served as commander of the Air Intelligence Agency and director of the Joint Command and Control Warfare Center, both headquartered at Lackland Air Force Base. He also has served in senior staff positions in the Pentagon; Headquarters U.S. European Command, Stuttgart, Germany; the National Security Council, Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Embassy in the then-People's Republic of Bulgaria. Prior to becoming Director of the National Security Agency, the general served as deputy chief of staff for United Nations Command and U.S. Forces Korea, Yongsan Garrison. He has also worked in intelligence in Guam.
From 1996 to 1997, Hayden served as commander of the AIA, an agency of 16,000 charged with defending and exploiting the "information domain."
Hayden served as the director of the National Security Agency and chief of the Central Security Service at Fort George G. Meade, Maryland, from March 1999 to April 2005. As the director of NSA and chief of CSS, he was responsible for a combat support agency of the Department of Defense with military and civilian personnel stationed worldwide.
Hayden came to the NSA at a time of great trouble in the agency. Internal government analysis indicated it suffered from a lack of quality management and an outdated IT infrastructure. In fact soon after he came on board, a huge part of the NSA network system crashed and was down for several days. Part of his plan to revitalize the agency was to introduce more outside contractors, induce a lot of old managers to retire and get rid of old management structures. Part of his plan also included increased openness at the agency; it had historically been one of the most secretive organs of government. He notably allowed James Bamford access for his book Body of Secrets. Hayden was also initially extremely concerned with following the laws against domestic surveillance. Many reports say that after 9/11, he became more concerned with stopping terrorism, and allegedly softened his stance against domestic surveillance. Hayden however has said that he believed everything the agency was doing was "effective, appropriate, and lawful".
On 9/11, Hayden immediately evacuated all non-essential personnel from NSA headquarters. After 9/11, the agency greatly increased its activity. Details about its operations have been largely hidden, but it played a major role in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the War on Terror. One notable example is its relationship with the unmanned aerial vehicle 'drone' program.
In May 2006, USA Today reported that, under Hayden's leadership, the NSA created a domestic telephone call database. During his nomination hearings, Hayden defended his actions to Senator Russ Feingold and others, stating that he had relied upon legal advice from the White House that building the database was supported by Article Two of the United States Constitution executive branch powers (in which the president must "take care that the laws be faithfully executed"), overriding legislative branch statutes forbidding warrantless surveillance of domestic calls, which included the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Previously, this action would have required a warrant from a FISA court. The stated purpose of the database was to eavesdrop on international communications between persons within the U.S. and individuals and groups overseas in order to locate terrorists.
Hayden also championed the Trailblazer Project, a "transformation" project with a large information technology component. The project was criticized by several NSA staffers for not including privacy protections for United States citizens and for being a waste of money. The critics included Diane S Roark, of the House Intelligence Committee, NSA workers Thomas Andrews Drake, William Binney, J. Kirk Wiebe, and Loomis, and others. Hayden severely rebuked these critics. Several quit in protest. After investigations by the NSA inspector general, the DOD inspector general, and Congress, Trailblazer was shut down.
As part of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, the CIA chief no longer would run the intelligence community. Instead a new office was created for this purpose; the Director of National Intelligence. General Hayden became the Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence from May 2005 to May 2006 under the first DNI, John Negroponte.
On January 23, 2006, Hayden participated in a news conference. A YouTube video was posted of Michael Hayden telling reporters at a press conference that "probable cause" is not required for all searches or seizures under the Fourth Amendment, claiming instead that the standard is whether the search or seizure is reasonable. "Probable cause" is required for all warrants, whether or not the search or seizure is deemed to be "unreasonable."
Many critics and experts on interrogation techniques maintain that torture does not work to yield reliable information, including in the context of CIA detainees, and Hayden said such views, or the notion that torture never yield useful intelligence, is not credible and the product of "interrogation deniers".
On May 8, 2006, Hayden was nominated by President George W. Bush to be Director of the Central Intelligence Agency after the resignation of Porter J. Goss on May 5, 2006. He was later confirmed on May 26, 2006, as director, 78–15, by full U.S. Senate vote.
Critics of the nomination and Hayden's attempts to increase domestic surveillance included Senator Dianne Feinstein who stated on May 11, 2006, that "I happen to believe we are on our way to a major constitutional confrontation on Fourth Amendment guarantees of unreasonable search and seizure".
Hayden has been accused of lying to Congress during his 2007 testimony about the CIA's 'enhanced interrogation program.
In 2007, Hayden lobbied to allow the CIA to conduct drone strikes purely on the behavior of ground vehicles, with no further evidence of connection to terrorism.
In 2008 Hayden warned of the destabilizing consequences of Muslim migration to Europe that might raise the possibility of civil unrest. According to Leon Panetta's memoir, Worthy Fights, Hayden had hoped to be retained as CIA director by the Obama administration and derisively referred to his successor as "Rahm Emanuel's goombah". In conversations with Panetta, Hayden encouraged him to advise the president to protect the CIA's right to engage in enhanced interrogation techniques as well as to avoid suggesting that CIA officers had ever performed torture.
In 2013, after the P5+1 reached a nuclear agreement with Iran, Hayden said, "We have accepted Iranian uranium enrichment."
The 2014 Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture cited an email prepared by a subordinate that indicated that as CIA Director, Hayden instructed that out-of-date information be used in briefing Congress so that fewer than 100 Guantanamo Bay detainees would be reported.
In 2007, Hayden received the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement. In 2008, in his native Northside neighborhood, the city of Pittsburgh named a part of a street going past Heinz Field in his honor. On July 26, 2011, Hayden was inducted into the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps Distinguished Alumni in a ceremony at Maxwell AFB, Alabama, officiated by Lt. Gen. Allen G. Peck, commander, Air University. He serves as a member of the board of advisors of the Military Cyber Professionals Association (MCPA)