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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
* * *
Those who know Alexander say he is introspective,
self-effacing, and even folksy. He's fond of corny jokes and puns and likes to
play pool, golf, and Bejeweled
addictive puzzle game, on which he says he routinely scores more than 1 million
Alexander is also as skilled a Washington knife fighter as
they come. To get the NSA job, he allied himself with the Pentagon brass, most
notably Donald Rumsfeld, who distrusted Hayden and thought he had been trying
to buck the Pentagon's control of the NSA. Alexander also called on all the
right committee members on Capitol Hill, the overseers and appropriators who
hold the NSA's future in their hands.
When he was running the Army's Intelligence and Security
Command, Alexander brought many of his future allies down to Fort Belvoir for a
tour of his base of operations, a facility known as the Information Dominance
Center. It had been designed by a Hollywood set designer to mimic the bridge
of the starship Enterprise from Star Trek, complete with chrome panels, computer
stations, a huge TV monitor on the forward wall, and doors that made a
"whoosh" sound when they slid open and closed. Lawmakers and other
important officials took turns sitting in a leather "captain's
in the center of the room and watched as Alexander, a lover of science-fiction
movies, showed off his data tools on the big screen.
"Everybody wanted to sit in the chair at least once to
pretend he was Jean-Luc
says a retired officer in charge of VIP visits.
Alexander wowed members of Congress with his eye-popping
command center. And he took time to sit with them in their offices and explain
the intricacies of modern technology in simple, plain-spoken language. He
demonstrated a command of the subject without intimidating those who had none.
"Alexander is 10 times the political general as David
Petraeus," says the former administration official, comparing the NSA
director to a man who was once considered a White House contender. "He
could charm the paint off a wall."
Alexander has had to muster every ounce of that political
savvy since the Snowden leaks started coming in June. In closed-door briefings,
members of Congress have accused him of deceiving them about how much
information he has been collecting on Americans. Even when lawmakers have
screamed at him from across the table, Alexander has remained
"unflappable," says a congressional staffer who has sat in on
numerous private briefings since the Snowden leaks. Instead of screaming back,
he reminds lawmakers about all the
terrorism plots that the NSA has claimed to help foil.
"He is well aware that he will be criticized if there's
another attack," the staffer says. "He has said many times, 'My job
is to protect the American people. And I have to be perfect.'"
There's an implied threat in that statement. If Alexander
doesn't get all the information he wants, he cannot do his job. "He never
says it explicitly, but the message is, 'You don't want to be the one to make
me miss,'" says the former administration official. "You don't want
to be the one that denied me these capabilities before the next attack."
Alexander has a distinct advantage over most, if not all,
intelligence chiefs in the government today: He actually understands the
multibillion-dollar technical systems that he's running.
"When he would talk to our engineers, he would get down
in the weeds as far as they were. And he'd understand what they were talking
about," says a former NSA official. In that respect, he had a leg up on
Hayden, who colleagues say is a good big-picture thinker but lacks the geek
gene that Alexander was apparently born with.
"He looked at the technical
aspects of the agency more so than any director I've known," says Richard
"Dickie" George, who spent 41 years at the NSA and retired as the
technical director of the Information Assurance Directorate. "I get the
impression he would have been happy being one of those guys working down in the
noise," George said, referring to the front-line technicians and analysts
working to pluck signals out of the network.
Alexander, 61, has been a techno-spy since the beginning of
his military career. After graduating from West Point in 1974, he went to West
Germany, where he was initiated in the dark arts of signals intelligence.
Alexander spent his time eavesdropping on military communications emanating
from East Germany and Czechoslovakia. He was interested in the mechanics that
supported this brand of espionage. He rose quickly through the ranks.
"It's rare to get a commander who understands
technology," says a former Army officer who served with Alexander in 1995,
when Alexander was in charge of the 525th Military Intelligence Brigade at Fort
Bragg, North Carolina. "Even then he was into big data. You think of the
wizards as the guys who are in their 20s." Alexander was 42 at the time.
At the turn of the century, Alexander took the big-data
to counterterrorism. How well that method worked continues to be a matter of
intense debate. Surely discrete interceptions of terrorists' phone calls and
emails have helped disrupt plots and prevent attacks. But huge volumes of data
don't always help catch potential plotters. Sometimes, the drive for more data
just means capturing more ordinary people in the surveillance driftnet.
When he ran INSCOM and was horning in on the NSA's turf,
Alexander was fond of building charts that showed how a suspected terrorist was
connected to a much broader network of people via his communications or the
contacts in his phone or email account.
"He had all these diagrams showing how this guy was
connected to that guy and to that guy," says a former NSA official who
heard Alexander give briefings on the floor of the Information Dominance
Center. "Some of my colleagues and I were skeptical. Later, we had a
chance to review the information. It turns out that all [that] those guys were
connected to were pizza shops."
A retired military officer who worked with Alexander also
describes a "massive network chart" that was purportedly about al
Qaeda and its connections in Afghanistan. Upon closer examination, the retired
officer says, "We found there was no data behind the links. No verifiable
sources. We later found out that a quarter of the guys named on the chart had
already been killed in Afghanistan."
Those network charts have become more massive now that
Alexander is running the NSA. When analysts try to determine if a particular
person is engaged in terrorist activity, they may look at the communications of
people who are as many as three steps, or "hops," removed from the
original target. This means that even when the NSA is focused on just one
individual, the number of people who are being caught up in the agency's electronic
nets could easily be in the tens of millions.
According to an internal audit, the agency's surveillance operations
have been beset by human error and fooled by moving targets. After
the NSA's legal authorities were expanded and the PRISM program was
implemented, the agency inadvertently collected Americans' communications
thousands of times each year, between 2008 and 2012, in violation of privacy
rules and the law.
Yet the NSA still pursued a counterterrorism strategy that
relies on ever-bigger data sets. Under Alexander's leadership, one of the
agency's signature analysis tools was a digital graph that showed how hundreds,
sometimes thousands, of people, places, and events were connected to each
other. They were displayed as a tangle of dots and lines. Critics called it the
BAG -- for "big ass graph" -- and said it produced very few useful
leads. CIA officials in charge of tracking overseas terrorist cells were
particularly unimpressed by it. "I don't need this," a senior CIA
officer working on the agency's drone program once told an NSA analyst who showed up with a
big, nebulous graph. "I just need you to tell me whose ass to put a
Hellfire missile on."
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
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
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
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
As immense as the NSA's mission
has become -- patrolling the world's data fields in search of terrorists, spies,
and computer hackers -- it is merely one phase of Alexander's plan. The NSA's
primary mission is to protect government systems and information. But under his
leadership, the agency is also extending its reach into the private sector in
Toward the end of George W. Bush's administration, Alexander
helped persuade Defense Department officials to set up a computer network defense
project to prevent foreign intelligence agencies --mainly China's -- from
stealing weapons plans and other national secrets from government contractors'
Under the Defense Industrial Base initiative, also known as
the DIB, the NSA provides the companies with intelligence about the
cyberthreats it's tracking. In return, the companies report back about what
they see on their networks and share intelligence with each other.
Pentagon officials say the program has helped stop some
cyber-espionage. But many corporate participants say Alexander's primary motive
has not been to share what the NSA knows about hackers. It's to get
intelligence from the companies -- to make them the NSA's digital scouts. What
is billed as an information-sharing arrangement has sometimes seemed more like
a one-way street, leading straight to the NSA's headquarters at Fort Meade.
"We wanted companies to be able to share information
with each other," says the former administration official, "to create
a picture about the threats against them. The NSA wanted the picture."
After the DIB was up and running, Alexander proposed going
further. "He wanted to create a wall around other sensitive institutions
in America, to include financial institutions, and to install equipment to
monitor their networks," says the former administration official. "He
wanted this to be running in every Wall Street bank."
That aspect of the plan has never been fully implemented,
largely due to legal concerns. If a company allowed the government to install
monitoring equipment on its systems, a court could decide that the company was
acting as an agent of the government. And if surveillance were conducted
without a warrant or legitimate connection to an investigation, the company
could be accused of violating the Fourth Amendment. Warrantless surveillance
can be unconstitutional regardless of whether the NSA or Google or Goldman
Sachs is doing it.
"That's a subtle point, and that subtlety was often
lost on NSA," says the former administration official. "Alexander has
ignored that Fourth Amendment concern."
The DIB experiment was a first step toward Alexander's
taking more control over the country's cyberdefenses, and it was illustrative
of his assertive approach to the problem. "He was always challenging us on
the defensive side to be more aware and to try and find and counter the
threat," says Tony Sager, who was the chief operating officer for the
NSA's Information Assurance Directorate, which protects classified government
information and computers. "He wanted to know, 'Who are the bad guys? How
do we go after them?'"
While it's a given that the NSA cannot monitor the entire
Internet on its own and that it needs intelligence from companies, Alexander
has questioned whether companies have the capacity to protect themselves.
"What we see is an increasing level of activity on the networks," he
recently at a security conference in Canada. "I am concerned that this is
going to break a threshold where the private sector can no longer handle it and
the government is going to have to step in."
* * *
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
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.'"
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."
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