Given his pedigree, it's unsurprising that Alexander is a devotee of big data. "It was taken as a given for him, as a career intelligence officer, that more information is better," says another retired military officer. "That was ingrained."
But Alexander was never alone in his obsession. An obscure civilian engineer named James Heath has been a constant companion for a significant portion of Alexander's career. More than any one person, Heath influenced how the general went about building an information empire.
Several former intelligence officials who worked with Heath described him as Alexander's "mad scientist." Another called him the NSA director's "evil genius." For years, Heath, a brilliant but abrasive technologist, has been in charge of making Alexander's most ambitious ideas a reality; many of the controversial data-mining tools that Alexander wanted to use against the NSA's raw intelligence were developed by Heath, for example. "He's smart, crazy, and dangerous. He'll push the technology to the limits to get it to do what he wants," says a former intelligence official.
Heath has followed Alexander from post to post, but he almost always stays in the shadows. Heath recently retired from government service as the senior science advisor to the NSA director -- Alexander's personal tech guru. "The general really looked to him for advice," says George, the former technical director. "Jim didn't mind breaking some eggs to make an omelet. He couldn't do that on his own, but General Alexander could. They brought a sense of needing to get things done. They were a dynamic duo."
Precisely where Alexander met Heath is unclear. They have worked together since at least 1995, when Alexander commanded the 525th Military Intelligence Brigade and Heath was his scientific sidekick. "That's where Heath took his first runs at what he called 'data visualization,' which is now called 'big data,'" says a retired military intelligence officer. Heath was building tools that helped commanders on the field integrate information from different sensors -- reconnaissance planes, satellites, signals intercepts -- and "see" it on their screens. Later, Heath would work with tools that showed how words in a document or pages on the Internet were linked together, displaying those connections in the form of three-dimensional maps and graphs.
At the Information Dominance Center, Heath built a program called the "automatic ingestion manager." It was a search engine for massive sets of data, and in 1999, he started taking it for test runs on the Internet.
In one experiment, the retired officer says, the ingestion manager searched for all web pages linked to the website of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). Those included every page on the DIA's site, and the tool scoured and copied them so aggressively that it was mistaken for a hostile cyberattack. The site's automated defenses kicked in and shut it down.
On another occasion, the searching tool landed on an anti-war website while searching for information about the conflict in Kosovo. "We immediately got a letter from the owner of the site wanting to know why was the military spying on him," the retired officer says. As far as he knows, the owner took no legal action against the Army, and the test run was stopped.
Those experiments with "bleeding-edge" technology, as the denizens of the Information Dominance Center liked to call it, shaped Heath and Alexander's approach to technology in spy craft. And when they ascended to the NSA in 2005, their influence was broad and profound. "These guys have propelled the intelligence community into big data," says the retired officer.
Heath was at Alexander's side for the expansion of Internet surveillance under the PRISM program. Colleagues say it fell largely to him to design technologies that tried to make sense of all the new information the NSA was gobbling up. But Heath had developed a reputation for building expensive systems that never really work as promised and then leaving them half-baked in order to follow Alexander on to some new mission.
"He moved fairly fast and loose with money and spent a lot of it," the retired officer says. "He doubled the size of the Information Dominance Center and then built another facility right next door to it. They didn't need it. It's just what Heath and Alexander wanted to do." The Information Operations Center, as it was called, was underused and spent too much money, says the retired officer. "It's a center in search of a customer."
Heath's reputation followed him to the NSA. In early 2010, weeks after a young al Qaeda terrorist with a bomb sewn into his underwear tried to bring down a U.S. airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day, the director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, called for a new tool that would help the disparate intelligence agencies better connect the dots about terrorism plots. The NSA, the State Department, and the CIA each had possessed fragments of information about the so-called underwear bomber's intentions, but there had been no dependable mechanism for integrating them all and providing what one former national security official described as "a quick-reaction capability" so that U.S. security agencies would be warned about the bomber before he got on the plane.
Blair put the NSA in charge of building this new capability, and the task eventually fell to Heath. "It was a complete disaster," says the former national security official, who was briefed on the project. "Heath's approach was all based on signals intelligence [the kind the NSA routinely collects] rather than taking into account all the other data coming in from the CIA and other sources. That's typical of Heath. He's got a very narrow viewpoint to solve a problem."
Like other projects of Heath's, the former official says, this one was never fully implemented. As a result, the intelligence community still didn't have a way to stitch together clues from different databases in time to stop the next would-be bomber. Heath -- and Alexander -- moved on to the next big project.
"There's two ways of looking at these guys," the retired military officer says. "Two visionaries who took risks and pushed the intelligence community forward. Or as two guys who blew a monumental amount of money."