On Aug. 1, 2005, Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander reported for duty as the 16th director of the National Security Agency, the United States' largest intelligence organization. He seemed perfect for the job. Alexander was a decorated Army intelligence officer and a West Point graduate with master's degrees in systems technology and physics. He had run intelligence operations in combat and had held successive senior-level positions, most recently as the director of an Army intelligence organization and then as the service's overall chief of intelligence. He was both a soldier and a spy, and he had the heart of a tech geek. Many of his peers thought Alexander would make a perfect NSA director. But one prominent person thought otherwise: the prior occupant of that office.
Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden had been running the NSA since 1999, through the 9/11 terrorist attacks and into a new era that found the global eavesdropping agency increasingly focused on Americans' communications inside the United States. At times, Hayden had found himself swimming in the murkiest depths of the law, overseeing programs that other senior officials in government thought violated the Constitution. Now Hayden of all people was worried that Alexander didn't understand the legal sensitivities of that new mission.
"Alexander tended to be a bit of a cowboy: 'Let's not worry about the law. Let's just figure out how to get the job done,'" says a former intelligence official who has worked with both men. "That caused General Hayden some heartburn."
The heartburn first flared up not long after the 2001 terrorist attacks. Alexander was the general in charge of the Army's Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM) at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. He began insisting that the NSA give him raw, unanalyzed data about suspected terrorists from the agency's massive digital cache, according to three former intelligence officials. Alexander had been building advanced data-mining software and analytic tools, and now he wanted to run them against the NSA's intelligence caches to try to find terrorists who were in the United States or planning attacks on the homeland.
By law, the NSA had to scrub intercepted communications of most references to U.S. citizens before those communications can be shared with other agencies. But Alexander wanted the NSA "to bend the pipe towards him," says one of the former officials, so that he could siphon off metadata, the digital records of phone calls and email traffic that can be used to map out a terrorist organization based on its members' communications patterns.
"Keith wanted his hands on the raw data. And he bridled at the fact that NSA didn't want to release the information until it was properly reviewed and in a report," says a former national security official. "He felt that from a tactical point of view, that was often too late to be useful."
Hayden thought Alexander was out of bounds. INSCOM was supposed to provide battlefield intelligence for troops and special operations forces overseas, not use raw intelligence to find terrorists within U.S. borders. But Alexander had a more expansive view of what military intelligence agencies could do under the law.
"He said at one point that a lot of things aren't clearly legal, but that doesn't make them illegal," says a former military intelligence officer who served under Alexander at INSCOM.
In November 2001, the general in charge of all Army intelligence had informed his personnel, including Alexander, that the military had broad authority to collect and share information about Americans, so long as they were "reasonably believed to be engaged" in terrorist activities, the general wrote in a widely distributed memo.
The general didn't say how exactly to make this determination, but it was all the justification Alexander needed. "Hayden's attitude was 'Yes, we have the technological capability, but should we use it?' Keith's was 'We have the capability, so let's use it,'" says the former intelligence official who worked with both men.
Hayden denied Alexander's request for NSA data. And there was some irony in that decision. At the same time, Hayden was overseeing a highly classified program to monitor Americans' phone records and Internet communications without permission from a court. At least one component of that secret domestic spying program would later prompt senior Justice Department officials to threaten resignation because they thought it was illegal.
But that was a presidentially authorized program run by a top-tier national intelligence agency. Alexander was a midlevel general who seemed to want his own domestic spying operation. Hayden was so troubled that he reported Alexander to his commanding general, a former colleague says. "He didn't use that atomic word -- 'insubordination' -- but he danced around it."