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Former intel head Michael Hayden on stealing others' secrets

How far should our national security agencies go in the war against terror? Former CIA Director Michael Hayden puts his views on the line in a conversation with CBS News national security correspondent David Martin:

Football fans know Heinz Field as the home of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Former CIA Director Mike Hayden sees something else there as well. The stadium's parking lot is located on the site of his boyhood home.

The Steelers may have paved over Hayden's working-class neighborhood, but the city of Pittsburgh made up for it by naming a street after him -- the local boy who rose to the top of American intelligence.

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Former head of the CIA and NSA Michael Hayden, with CBS News correspondent David Martin.
CBS News

He has been in the middle of just about every controversial intelligence operation of the first decade of the 21st century. So what, Martin asked, did you learn?

"Both the power and the limits of intelligence," he replied.

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Penguin

He is the only man to head both the National Security Agency (with its almost incomprehensible power to monitor communications) and the CIA. Hayden's memoir is called "Playing to the Edge," where the power of intelligence meets the limits of the law.

"Fundamentally, we're going out there stealing information we are not otherwise entitled to," Hayden said. "Now, we do it to foreigners. We don't do it to our own citizens; they're protected by our Constitution. But unarguably, we're out there stealing other people's secrets."

A lifelong Steelers fan, he used their practice field to make his point to Martin: "We were playing right up to the line, and we knew it."

In the months after 9/11, Hayden set up an operation called Stellar Wind, under which NSA eavesdropped on Americans suspected of communicating with terrorists overseas.

"You've got a moral responsibility to use all the authorities that you've been given, and that is especially true when you think you're in a national emergency like we were after 9/11," he said.

Drone strikes against suspected terrorists also began after 9/11 -- another operation on the edge.

"There aren't many other countries on Earth who believe the American legal theory for targeted killings," Hayden said. "That we can use unmanned aerial vehicles for precision strikes, outside of internationally accepted theaters of conflict, I'm very happy with it, content with it, legally and morally."

As head of the CIA from 2006 to 2009, Hayden had to personally approve those drone strikes. He remembers one in particular, against Abu Khabab al-Masri, a master bombmaker and chief of al Qaeda's WMD program.

"We had him, quote unquote, within our sights, but he was with members of his family," Hayden said. "He actually had a grandson sleeping near him. And so as part of our intelligence contribution to the operation, you are engineering what weapons could be used, what's the probability of kill for those weapons, and it was going to be a very close call as to whether or not we could kill the target and spare the grandson. We did everything we could."

"And?"

"We failed. We killed him, but the grandson died also."

"And you can live with that?" Martin asked.

"I can," Hayden replied. "And I can say I can without any sense of being cavalier. I have grandchildren, too."

That's a long road for a Catholic altar boy to travel, but he can still go home again, and hobnob with his old junior high football coach -- Dan Rooney, chairman of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Tucked away behind six Super Bowl trophies is a wall of Steeler greats, including the young Mike Hayden, who helped with the team's equipment.

Thirty-five years later, he became Director of the National Security Agency, right in the middle of the information revolution. NSA, which had spent the 20th century intercepting communications that went through the air, started stealing information from other countries' computer networks.

"It was sitting there for the taking, if you could just get there to grab it," said Hayden.

"The image of the NSA is linguists with headphones, listening," said Martin. "Now you're talking about hackers."

"Yeah!'

"That's night and day."

"It is. I agree with you."

"You're going from listening to breaking and entering."

"You bet."

Last year, when China hacked into the Office of Personnel Management and stole the private information of millions of government employees, U.S. officials treated that as an outrage.

To Hayden, it was a nifty piece of work.