Hayden Center Hosts '2024's National Security Challenges' Open Forum

Four men and a woman sit in black chairs on a stage with a green backdrop.
The security briefing is in session! The panelists prepare to take questions from in-person and virtual audiences. From left, Larry Pfeiffer, Ellen Laipson, Michael V. Hayden, Andrew McCabe, and David Priess. Photos by Abigail Danfora/Schar School of Policy and Government
A woman in red eyeglasses, a gray jacket, and a gray and white scarf gestures with her hands.
Ellen Laipson fields a question from an audience member.

The refrain has become a familiar one: Audience members attending panel discussions presented by the Michael V. Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy, and International Security at George Mason University pointed out that despite a generous allotment of programming time, there wasn’t enough opportunity to ask all the questions they wanted answered.

In response, last February, the Hayden Center hosted an inaugural open forum, with members of the Schar School of Policy and Government’s international and national faculty fielding questions from the audience for 90 minutes.

The format was so successful the center hosted another on Tuesday, February 20, at Mason’s Mason Square auditorium in Arlington, Virginia. Some 60 audience members, with another 330 watching on the Hayden Center’s YouTube channel, turned out and tuned in to see how five panelists responded to questions addressing the title of the program, “2024’s National Security Challenges.”

Hayden Center director Larry Pfeiffer, who shared the stage with faculty members, had prepared several pages of questions of his own should there be a dearth of curiosity from the floor. Pfeiffer was happily disappointed: In-person audience members lined up at microphones on either side of the auditorium to ask their questions while others watching on YouTube filled a chat box that moved like a tickertape throughout the night.

There still was not enough time to get to all the questions, which no doubt reflects how many global security concerns are on the public’s mind.

Two men in gray suit jackets sit in black chairs.
Michael V. Hayden considers Andrew McCabe’s answer to a question during the 90-minute forum.

This quagmire of a quandary was not lost on Michael V. Hayden, the former director of the National Security Agency and the CIA and the founder and namesake of the center, who said China was his greatest security concern two years ago but now adds the fate of Ukraine to the top of the list, along with Israel’s war on Gaza. But in the end, he added later in the discussion, “China will be the most important [security concern] for 100 years.”

For Ellen Laipson, director of the Master of International Security degree program and the Center for Security Policy Studies, one of her main concerns is “the perception of American leadership, the confidence in U.S. allies” in the multiple international crises around the world. The lack of global leadership in managing the big problems of the world, which historically has fallen to the U.S., could lead to a significant change in the balance of world power.

The litany of issues that are on former acting director of the FBI Andrew McCabe’s mind include climate change, election interference, intractable financial and commercial partnerships China (“which we don’t have [in the conflict] with Russia,” he pointed out), and gun safety. When asked about a reprise of the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, McCabe said “there are strong opinions about how little we know that led to the intelligence failure on January 6. What has the bureau done to improve their performance? If I was there now, I’d be really worried. The idea is to do the job better.” (See a story about McCabe’s weekly podcast about the work of special counsel Jack Smith, “Jack.”)

Former CIA officer David Priess is also concerned about election interference as a “huge opportunity” for those who benefit from public divisiveness. He also notes that aid to Ukraine “is not even a debate” on Capitol Hill. “It’s nothing, it’s not even being put up for votes,” he said, frustration rising in his voice. He also warns that in mere generations, climate will cause “millions, hundreds of millions, billions of immigrants” forced to mass migrate for resources “unless we address these [climate] issues like adults now.”

But all, apparently, is not lost.

“We have huge challenges, huge problems,” concluded McCabe, “but we have immense capacity to meet them.”