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Now, for the first time in Alexander's career, Congress and the general public are expressing deep misgivings about sharing information with the NSA or letting it install surveillance equipment. A Rasmussen poll of likely voters taken in June found that 68 percent believe it's likely the government is listening to their communications, despite repeated assurances from Alexander and President Barack Obama that the NSA is only collecting anonymous metadata about Americans' phone calls. In another Rasmussen poll, 57 percent of respondents said they think it's likely that the government will use NSA intelligence "to harass political opponents."
Some who know Alexander say he doesn't appreciate the depth of public mistrust and cynicism about the NSA's mission. "People in the intelligence community in general, and certainly Alexander, don't understand the strategic value of having a largely unified country and a long-term trust in the intelligence business," says a former intelligence official, who has worked with Alexander. Another adds, "There's a feeling within the NSA that they're all patriotic citizens interested in protecting privacy, but they lose sight of the fact that people don't trust the government."
Even Alexander's strongest critics don't doubt his good intentions. "He's not a nefarious guy," says the former administration official. "I really do feel like he believes he's doing this for the right reasons." Two of the retired military officers who have worked with him say Alexander was seared by the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 and later the 9/11 attacks, a pair of major intelligence failures that occurred while he was serving in senior-level positions in military intelligence. They said he vowed to do all he could to prevent another attack that could take the lives of Americans and military service members.
But those who've worked closely with Alexander say he has become blinded by the power of technology. "He believes they have enough technical safeguards in place at the NSA to protect civil liberties and perform their mission," the former administration official says. "They do have a very robust capability -- probably better than any other agency. But he doesn't get that this power can still be abused. Americans want introspection. Transparency is a good thing. He doesn't understand that. In his mind it's 'You should trust me, and in exchange, I give you protection.'"