On July 30 in Las Vegas, Alexander sat down for dinner with a group of civil liberties activists and Internet security researchers. He was in town to give a keynote address the next day at the Black Hat security conference. The mood at the table was chilly, according to people who were in attendance. In 2012, Alexander had won plaudits for his speech at Black Hat's sister conference, Def Con, in which he'd implored the assembled community of experts to join him in their mutual cause: protecting the Internet as a safe space for speech, communications, and commerce. Now, however, nearly two months after the first leaks from Snowden, the people around the table wondered whether they could still trust the NSA director.
His dinner companions questioned Alexander about the NSA's legal authority to conduct massive electronic surveillance. Two guests had recently written a New York Times op-ed calling the NSA's activities "criminal." Alexander was quick to debate the finer points of the law and defend his agency's programs -- at least the ones that have been revealed -- as closely monitored and focused solely on terrorists' information.
But he also tried to convince his audience that they should help keep the NSA's surveillance system running. In so many words, Alexander told them: The terrorists only have to succeed once to kill thousands of people. And if they do, all of the rules we have in place to protect people's privacy will go out the window.
Alexander cast himself as the ultimate defender of civil liberties, as a man who needs to spy on some people in order to protect everyone. He knows that in the wake of another major terrorist attack on U.S. soil, the NSA will be unleashed to find the perpetrators and stop the next assault. Random searches of metadata, broad surveillance of purely domestic communications, warrantless seizure of stored communications -- presumably these and other extraordinary measures would be on the table. Alexander may not have spelled out just what the NSA would do after another homeland strike, but the message was clear: We don't want to find out.
Alexander was asking his dinner companions to trust him. But his credibility has been badly damaged. Alexander was heckled at his speech the next day at Black Hat. He had been slated to talk at Def Con too, but the organizers rescinded their invitation after the Snowden leaks. And even among Alexander's cohort, trust is flagging.
"You'll never find evidence that Keith sits in his office at lunch listening to tapes of U.S. conversations," says a former NSA official. "But I think he has a little bit of naiveté about this controversy. He thinks, 'What's the problem? I wouldn't abuse this power. Aren't we all honorable people?' People get into these insular worlds out there at NSA. I think Keith fits right in."
One of the retired military officers, who worked with Alexander on several big-data projects, said he was shaken by revelations that the agency is collecting all Americans' phone records and examining enormous amounts of Internet traffic. "I've not changed my opinion on the right balance between security versus privacy, but what the NSA is doing bothers me," he says. "It's the massive amount of information they're collecting. I know they're not listening to everyone's phone calls. No one has time for that. But speaking as an analyst who has used metadata, I do not sleep well at night knowing these guys can see everything. That trust has been lost."