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Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror

3.79  ·  Rating details ·  1,554 ratings  ·  214 reviews
An unprecedented high-level master narrative of America's intelligence wars, from the only person ever to helm both CIA and NSA, at a time of heinous new threats and wrenching change

For General Michael Hayden, playing to the edge means playing so close to the line that you get chalk dust on your cleats. Otherwise, by playing back, you may protect yourself, but you will
Hardcover, 464 pages
Published February 23rd 2016 by Penguin Press
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Mar 07, 2016 rated it really liked it
There was a time when I thought Michael V. Hayden and his ilk were scum, but, as Hayden himself acknowledges: “You can only dehumanize an enemy from a distance” (238). Once I let Hayden into my head, he gave my liberal, civilian ass a serious reality check. Despite its nonlinear format and a bevy of technical jargon that I struggled to properly parse, Playing to the Edge challenged me to consider new perspectives about how and why Americans need––and should even celebrate––our practitioners of ...more
Sep 02, 2015 rated it really liked it
A broad and engaging if not always well-written memoir of Hayden’s military, NSA, and CIA career that covers a lot of territory in a calm, deadpan style (and often comes off as pessimistic) Most of the book deals with such topics as bureaucratic turf wars and the tension between privacy and security, or between a free press and an intelligence organization. Of course, Hayden does defend STELLAR WIND, advocates a modified version of the CIA’s terrorist detention and interrogation practices, and ...more
This is a superb book. It will give you incredible insight into NSA and CIA. Okay before I say more let me note that I know the author. He was stationed at Osan AB, Korea in a job very similar to the one I had on Okinawa in the early 1980s. We were both Air Force Majors then and had briefly met in Hawaii. When he heard I was up at Osan, he caught up with me and said, "c'mon over to my place tonight Janine will fix dinner." I went, had a good time because he and Janine just two very down to ...more
Jan 03, 2017 rated it really liked it
This is the personal memoir of perhaps the most visible top manager in the US intelligence community following the 9/11 attacks who served as the leader of the NSA and the CIA in Bush 43's two terms. He has a formidable media presence and is a powerful advocate for the value of US intelligence agencies during the post-9/11 era.

While General Hayden is easily recognized from his TV appearances, I was unsure whether I would like the book. Memoirs by those recently in controversial offices have
Sep 30, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
SILENCE DOESN'T EQUAL GUILT!! Especially in the Intelligence Community. It is blatantly wrong and unjust to level accusations against organizations that can't even properly defend themselves and so are always presumed guilty of whatever hair-brained conspiracy is leveled against them!

Reality is so much more nuanced and messier than the catchy one-liners of our modern hash-tag world. Our Government, specifically Congress, is full of Moral and Intellectual cowards who abuse the Intelligence
Larry Bassett
Jul 04, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: audio, memoir
I experienced this book in the audible format. The fact that it was read by the author was a very positive addition to the experience. I am however very conflicted about how many stars to give this effort to document the career of this four-star general who spent a good deal of his work career as a spy and sees it as a noble and essential part of what keeps America free. He seems especially pleased with the time he worked with President George W. Bush and Vice President Cheney two politicians ...more
Bethany Fair
Apr 04, 2016 rated it liked it
Contrary to my initial trepidation, Michael Hayden's memoir exceeded expectations insofar as it challenged my deeply held assumptions and convictions about where to draw the line when it comes security and freedom. As a liberal who repudiates the use of RDI for moral reasons, always in the FOIA-forever camp, Hayden's no bullshit account of HUMINT collection proves that often reality is much more complex than theory and that sometimes one must "play to the edge" in order to establish boundaries. ...more
Oct 05, 2017 rated it really liked it
In writing Playing to the Edge, General Michael V. Hayden, a man who has held some of the most important positions in the American intelligence community, wished to fulfill two tasks. First, he wanted to help fill the gap that most Americans possess in their understanding of what American intelligence bodies may do, can do, and how effectively they are doing it. Second, he wanted his voice to be heard about some of the weightiest and most controversial intelligence and policy issues of our time. ...more
Ryan Lackey
This book is definitely a 5 star book (deep insights into how NSA, CIA, the US IC, and intelligence overall worked in the late 90s/00s, including the immediate response to 9/11).

(I wouldn’t rate the author’s career as 5 stars. Hayden is complex, and I’m honestly not sure if he was a horrible NSA Director or merely a middling one at a challenging time, but he did seem to be a good CIA Director. Partially at NSA he seemed to have been dealt a basically broken organization that had failed to keep
Devyn Duffy
Jun 28, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: anyone
Recommended to Devyn by: saw it at the library
Playing to the Edge is a fascinating glimpse into U.S. intelligence, particularly the NSA and the CIA, and the difficult task of finding and keeping secrets in an open democracy. Although the book functions as a partial autobiography, its focus is on Hayden's tenure as director of the NSA and later the CIA (the reader mostly misses out on a look at the daily work of a lower-level intelligence officer). Hayden talks about the challenges faced in responding to a terrorist threat far different from ...more
Diana Long
Jun 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A behind the scenes glimpse into the government agencies created to provide America with the information to protect us from foreign infiltration among other things. Technology was meant to benefit and allow more free time to pursue other interests but it has become a red herring as well with all the hackers working to disrupt civilizations. There is a great deal of information to process in this work and just reading the guidelines fried my gray cells. I did think it was a worth while read and ...more
Betty Adams
Jun 14, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I recommend this book to everyone. While there may be a certain amount of jargon or acronyms used, there is a table of them and he does an excellent job of delineating the data collection process and the data analysis leading to covert and not-so-covert actions. He also explores in depth the tension between personal liberties and our country's need for security. It is particularly topical given the current rounds of Congressional hearings and recent international events. Dig in and enlarge your ...more
Tyler Standish
Oct 20, 2017 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed General Hayden's perspective and experience during the War on Terror. His leadership and passion are respectable and honorable.
Scott Martin
Jul 14, 2016 rated it liked it
(Audiobook). When I first heard of this work, I was quite curious to read it. Given all that has happened, especially since 9/11, to get the perspective from a man who was in the thick of the intelligence side of things, between his stints running NSA, the 1st Deputy Director of National Intelligence and the head of the CIA, there were quite a lot of highly visible and highly controversial topics that Hayden could provide insight for many in the public. He certainly tries to do that, jumping ...more
Sep 27, 2016 rated it liked it
This review is of the audio version.

When reading a memoir, it is important for me to remember that memoirs are the memories, biases, and experiences of the author. All authors are biased in their selection of material in accordance with the purpose of the story but memoirs, as first person descriptions are meant to be biased. When the purpose of a memoir is to set the record straight, one can naturally expect the writer to be telling a difficult story in a manner that defends his decisions and
As someone who became a civil libertarian in response to the sweeping powers of the surveilliance state during the Bush administration, I began reading this as a hostile audience, more or less. I was chiefly interested in the chapter on cybersecurity, although he says very little about it. The book is part memoir-biography, part defense of the privileged powers given to the United States' intelligence-security programs. While I am still not nor never will be comfortable with the amount of ...more
Jan 26, 2018 rated it liked it
For the past few years I have been reading in an effort to understand our political system as well as the rest of the world and the US’s interaction with them. I was hoping this book would be more straightforward but I couldn’t get passed the author constantly stating over and over that he and the employees he was in charge of never broke the law and his self aggrandizement. I understand that there have been multiple allegations/investigations into the interrogations of the terrorists that were ...more
Dan Graser
Feb 26, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Someone who has served as the head of both the NSA and the CIA likely has some very interesting stories and Michael Hayden imparts a great number in this wonderful memoir. You may, and will likely, disagree with his latter discussion of the Snowden revelations but his clear-headed analysis of his time in the public-eye and the work he did outside of the public-eye makes for extremely interesting reading. Highly Recommended
Jul 08, 2016 rated it liked it
I didn't realize that this was an autobiography, since my interest in choosing it was purely about learning more of the U.S. counter intelligence efforts.
But there was enough on my subject of interest to stretch a little and give it 3 stars.
The author is to be commended for a career spent in the service of his country in the military and then as CIA director.
The book makes clear how difficult it is for a democratic country to conduct intelligence operations and keep them secret.
John Braddock
Jan 26, 2018 rated it really liked it
As boss of the National Security Agency during 9/11 and later boss of the CIA, Hayden managed two intelligence bureaucracies.

At NSA, Hayden’s work was expected to be in the first two steps of the Data-Analysis-Decision-Action sequence. Hayden’s job was to collect as much data as possible, maybe more than anyone else in the world. Then, the job was to analyze it. To translate and filter it down and package it into something decision-makers can use. Which means into something that fits inside a
Nick Mclean
Feb 19, 2017 rated it really liked it
General Michael Hayden recounts his storied and controversial career in the National Intelligence Agency, as head of the National Security Agency and the CIA, in Playing to the Edge. The book is deeply informative, but accessible to the layperson unfamiliar with modern security methods and tradecraft. Unsurprisingly Hayden is a firm believer in the cause and necessity of espionage, and as such, the book is important, especially for those who tend to be skeptical of state secrets and security ...more
I listened to the audio book and it's just okay. While I can recommend this book it is mostly a memoir by Michael V. Hayden and a recounting of his military career and his time as the head of the NSA and the head of the CIA.

Hayden does seem to share some inside information about the inner workings of the NSA and Operation Prism and Stellar Wind. For those of you who do not know Prism is what Edward Snowden exposed by leaking his NSA documents to a reporter. Hayden shares his belief and his
Jessica Harris
May 17, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Intense Spy Thriller it's the true story of Michael Hayden's espionage career as director of NSA and CIA. It shows how hard these "spies" work giving up their life and safety and risking even jail or punishment just to keep America safe.

As a liberal, when I first began reading this book I expected to dislike Hayden. Needless to say, I couldn't. In his journey I could see he was doing everything he did to protect America and people like me. This doesn't mean I agreed with everything like bending
Feb 22, 2019 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: people interested in intelligence operations
Shelves: intelligence
„Playing to the edge“ by Michael Hayden is a very authentic inside perspective from the top tiers of NSA and CIA on a diverse set of issues regarding the intelligence enterprise like administrative guidance, international cooperation but mainly relations to the president and Congress.

This book can be regarded as Michael Hayden’s recollection on several year of service in top positions of NSA, ODNI and CIA. Having served successively in these three organizations Hayden is in a unique position to
I'm not sure who this book is written for. The message is an apology in the older sense that it is a defense of the actions that Hayden himself and others in the intelligence community undertook. But these actions were tried in the court of public opinion years ago. It seems unlikely that this book will change minds.

This book is not an apology that Hayden is admitting to being wrong. He certainly isn't. Or rather Hayden only admits to being wrong on minor issues that only serve to highlight the
Wes F
Nov 10, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
After reading Snowden's Permanent Record, it was good to have Hayden's perspective/insights for some balance. Hayden spent many years in the Air Force and then in various roles in the IC: Intelligence Community (made up of some 60+ agencies of the US government--or closely related to it). Hayden's account seeks to make a case for the reasons things have evolved to the state they currently are in the US world of intelligence--due to the catastrophic intelligence failure over the 9/11 terror ...more
May 04, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: history, memoir
I have heard Michael Hayden interviewed countless times, some in depth one hour interviews and have considerable respect for him and his I was really looking forward to reading his story of the many intelligence position he had held through a very tumultuous time in our history. I was also aware that as the Director of the CIA and of previous intelligence agencies that he would be limited in what he would be able to share and still get permission to publish.
While the information he
Colin Brown
Jul 19, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: paperback, history, own
Written by an insider in the world of US Intelligence, I found Playing to the Edge both informative and interesting. Gen. Hayden sets out to describe his time at NSA and CIA, and the programs that went on in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack. While at times his biases as a career military & intelligence officer are clear, as is his appreciation for former President George W. Bush, Gen. Hayden did a great job of describing the programs that were most concerning to the US public, primarily ...more
Jun 28, 2017 rated it really liked it
Can be a tedious read with the acronyms and bureaucratic red tape parts, but over all the author was able to layout the complexities of the intelligence community that the public largely doesn't know or care to know about but would rather stick to the vitriolic yelling about Big Brother watching. This book touches on the underfunded days the IC community experienced pre-9/11, reforming the industry even before 9/11, and then reforming it after 9/11 based on the Commission Report which some argue ...more
Aug 09, 2017 rated it really liked it
Excellent memoir. Not without its faults, and feels a bit partisan at times, but an excellent overview of some portentous and significant periods and programs in the intelligence community. A couple favorite quotes:
"...the habitual secrecy of the intelligence services has bled over into cyber ops in a way that has retarded the development--or at least the policy integration--of digital combat power."
"We had finally succeeded in making it so legally difficult and so politically dangerous to grab
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Michael Hayden is a retired United States Air Force four-star general and former Director of the National Security Agency, Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence, and Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He is currently a principal at the Chertoff Group, a security consultancy founded by former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. Hayden also serves as a Distinguished ...more
“I can’t tell the difference between unlucky and unskilled because the results are the same,” 2 likes
“The world is not getting any safer, and espionage remains our first line of defense. The” 1 likes
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