A former director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency says his spy service was well aware of the case of three radicalized Canadians from Winnipeg who are believed to have disappeared in Pakistan.
Michael Hayden told The Globe and Mail in an interview that he viewed the Canadians' travels as part of an "alarming" trend - one that led him to urge former U.S. president George W. Bush to step up covert CIA actions against individuals from the West who were seeking terrorist training overseas.
"I broadly know the case. I know the issue," he said. "… It was part of our general appreciation of 'We got people who know the West, who are now being trained to come back at the West.' "
Mr. Hayden would not say whether the men in question were ever targeted directly by CIA agents or CIA drone planes.
His remarks amount to the first time that a counterterrorism official has openly acknowledged the sensitive case of the missing Canadians, a behind-the-scenes global manhunt that was revealed last month in a lengthy article by The Globe and Mail.
In 2007, the three Winnipeggers ventured abroad after first undergoing conversions to radical Islam. The disappearance of the three men in their 20s - Muhannad al-Farekh, Miawand Yar and Ferid Imam - has been a mystery to friends and family, as well as to counterterrorism agencies who have traced a trail running from Winnipeg to Waziristan, Pakistan.
A retired four-star general who left the CIA last year, Mr. Hayden was featured as a speaker this week at a national-security conference being held aboard a cruise ship. After a presentation, he was asked by The Globe about the Canadian case and the CIA's clandestine drone-strike program.
But Mr. Hayden would not even confirm the existence of that program, though it is by now one of the world's worst-kept secrets. For several years, the CIA has been increasing its use of missile-equipped unmanned aerial vehicles (known as drones) in hot spots where the U.S. is not technically at war. The counterterrorism strategy is highly controversial, given that extra-judicial state-sponsored killings sit in a legal grey area.
One credible Web site, known as The Long War journal, says that more than 600 suspected terrorists in Pakistan have been killed so far this year in more than 100 CIA drone strikes. That's compared with fewer than 300 individuals killed in an estimated 35 strikes in 2008, according to the site.
While not speaking directly to the strategy, Mr. Hayden did give some insights into a more aggressive mindset that may be driving drone attacks.
"One of the big issues that I was briefing to George Bush as 07 turned to 08 was the number of Westerners - broadly defined - who were showing up in the tribal regions of Pakistan," he said.
He said he told the president that "this is a safe haven that's being used to prepare people to come attack us. And therefore we recommended - and this is the best I can give you on this - stronger courses of action."
The CIA has been frequently assailed by critics for allegedly engaging in major rights violations. Senior judges in Canada have, in recent years, faulted the RCMP and CSIS for improperly sharing information with CIA officials - exchanges that led to the CIA-facilitated jailing of Canadian citizens in brutal prisons overseas.
Even so, Mr. Hayden said he always retained warm relations with his Canadian counterparts, so cordial that Canadian spy chiefs would sometimes dine at his house in the United States.
Before joining the CIA in 2006, Mr. Hayden spent years running the National Security Agency, the secretive U.S. "signals intelligence" body. While heading the NSA, he took political flak for pioneering what has become known as "warrantless wiretapping."
He makes no apologies for acting aggressively - spy services, he said, always ought to be at the precise line between what is legal and what isn't.
"You want them playing fairly close to the line," he said.
"... Playing back from the line protects me. Playing close to the line protects America."