The showdown over bending the NSA's pipes was emblematic of Alexander's approach to intelligence, one he has honed over the course of a 39-year military career and deploys today as the director of the country's most powerful spy agency.
Alexander wants as much data as he can get. And he wants to hang on to it for as long as he can. To prevent the next terrorist attack, he thinks he needs to be able to see entire networks of communications and also go "back in time," as he has said publicly, to study how terrorists and their networks evolve. To find the needle in the haystack, he needs the entire haystack.
"Alexander's strategy is the same as Google's: I need to get all of the data," says a former administration official who worked with the general. "If he becomes the repository for all that data, he thinks the resources and authorities will follow."
That strategy has worked well for Alexander. He has served longer than any director in the NSA's history, and today he stands atop a U.S. surveillance empire in which signals intelligence, the agency's specialty, is the coin of the realm. In 2010, he became the first commander of the newly created U.S. Cyber Command, making him responsible for defending military computer networks against spies, hackers, and foreign armed forces -- and for fielding a new generation of cyberwarriors trained to penetrate adversaries' networks. Fueled by a series of relentless and increasingly revealing leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the full scope of Alexander's master plan is coming to light.
Today, the agency is routinely scooping up and storing Americans' phone records. It is screening their emails and text messages, even though the spy agency can't always tell the difference between an innocent American and a foreign terrorist. The NSA uses corporate proxies to monitor up to 75 percent of Internet traffic inside the United States. And it has spent billions of dollars on a secret campaign to foil encryption technologies that individuals, corporations, and governments around the world had long thought protected the privacy of their communications from U.S. intelligence agencies.
The NSA was already a data behemoth when Alexander took over. But under his watch, the breadth, scale, and ambition of its mission have expanded beyond anything ever contemplated by his predecessors. In 2007, the NSA began collecting information from Internet and technology companies under the so-called PRISM program. In essence, it was a pipes-bending operation. The NSA gets access to the companies' raw data--including e-mails, video chats, and messages sent through social media--and analysts then mine it for clues about terrorists and other foreign intelligence subjects. Similar to how Alexander wanted the NSA to feed him with intelligence at INSCOM, now some of the world's biggest technology companies -- including Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Apple -- are feeding the NSA. But unlike Hayden, the companies cannot refuse Alexander's advances. The PRISM program operates under a legal regime, put in place a few years after Alexander arrived at the NSA, that allows the agency to demand broad categories of information from technology companies.
Never in history has one agency of the U.S. government had the capacity, as well as the legal authority, to collect and store so much electronic information. Leaked NSA documents show the agency sucking up data from approximately 150 collection sites on six continents. The agency estimates that 1.6 percent of all data on the Internet flows through its systems on a given day -- an amount of information about 50 percent larger than what Google processes in the same period.
When Alexander arrived, the NSA was secretly investing in experimental databases to store these oceans of electronic signals and give analysts access to it all in as close to real time as possible. Under his direction, it has helped pioneer new methods of massive storage and retrieval. That has led to a data glut. The agency has collected so much information that it ran out of storage capacity at its 350-acre headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland, outside Washington, D.C. At a cost of more than $2 billion, it has built a new processing facility in the Utah desert, and it recently broke ground on a complex in Maryland. There is a line item in the NSA's budget just for research on "coping with information overload."
Yet it's still not enough for Alexander, who has proposed installing the NSA's surveillance equipment on the networks of defense contractors, banks, and other organizations deemed essential to the U.S. economy or national security. Never has this intelligence agency -- whose primary mission is espionage, stealing secrets from other governments -- proposed to become the electronic watchman of American businesses.
This kind of radical expansion shouldn't come as a surprise. In fact, it's a hallmark of Alexander's career. During the Iraq war, for example, he pioneered a suite of real-time intelligence analysis tools that aimed to scoop up every phone call, email, and text message in the country in a search for terrorists and insurgents. Military and intelligence officials say it provided valuable insights that helped turn the tide of the war. It was also unprecedented in its scope and scale. He has transferred that architecture to a global scale now, and with his responsibilities at Cyber Command, he is expanding his writ into the world of computer network defense and cyber warfare.
As a result, the NSA has never been more powerful, more pervasive, and more politically imperiled. The same philosophy that turned Alexander into a giant -- acquire as much data from as many sources as possible -- is now threatening to undo him. Alexander today finds himself in the unusual position of having to publicly defend once-secret programs and reassure Americans that the growth of his agency, which employs more than 35,000 people, is not a cause for alarm. In July, the House of Representatives almost approved a law to constrain the NSA's authorities -- the closest Congress has come to reining in the agency since the 9/11 attacks. That narrow defeat for surveillance opponents has set the stage for a Supreme Court ruling on whether metadata -- the information Alexander has most often sought about Americans -- should be afforded protection under the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against "unreasonable searches and seizures," which would make metadata harder for the government to acquire.
Alexander declined Foreign Policy's request for an interview, but in response to questions about his leadership, his respect for civil liberties, and the Snowden leaks, he provided a written statement.
"The missions of NSA and USCYBERCOM are conducted in a manner that is lawful, appropriate, and effective, and under the oversight of all three branches of the U.S. government," Alexander stated. "Our mission is to protect our people and defend the nation within the authorities granted by Congress, the courts and the president. There is an ongoing investigation into the damage sustained by our nation and our allies because of the recent unauthorized disclosure of classified material. Based on what we know to date, we believe these disclosures have caused significant and irreversible harm to the security of the nation."
In lieu of an interview about his career, Alexander's spokesperson recommended a laudatory profile about him that appeared in West Point magazine. It begins: "At key moments throughout its history, the United States has been fortunate to have the right leader -- someone with an ideal combination of rare talent and strong character -- rise to a position of great responsibility in public service. With General Keith B. Alexander ... Americans are again experiencing this auspicious state of affairs."
Lawmakers and the public are increasingly taking a different view. They are skeptical about what Alexander has been doing with all the data he's collecting -- and why he's been willing to push the bounds of the law to get it. If he's going to preserve his empire, he'll have to mount the biggest charm offensive of his career. Fortunately for him, Alexander has spent as much time building a political base of power as a technological one.