Profile Of NSA Boss General Keith Alexander Reveals: He Wants All The Data, And He Doesn't Care About The Law

from the not-a-good-combination dept

Shane Harris has an explosive and fascinating profile of NSA boss General Keith Alexander for Foreign Policy magazine. You should read the whole thing, but I wanted to highlight a few key points that are really kind of eye-opening.
  • His predecessor, General Michael Hayden, thought Alexander is a loose cannon who doesn't understand or care about the law. One of Alexander's strongest defenders since the Snowden leaks came out has been Hayden -- the guy who called NSA critics just a bunch of internet shut-ins who can't get laid. However, the FP report suggests that Hayden felt Alexander was dangerous, not right for the job at the top of the NSA, and not clued in to basic legal realities. Specifically, after 9/11, Alexander (at the time in charge of the Army's Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM)) tried to get the NSA to hand over its firehose of data directly to him to analyze. But that's a no, no.
    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 patterns.

    "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 useful."

    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.
    This is fairly incredible, considering that Hayden was the guy who oversaw the infamous illegal warrantless wiretapping program under President Bush. The fact that he felt Alexander wanted to go way too far in spying on Americans should say something.

  • General Alexander apparently has no problem playing word games to justify what he wants. This shouldn't be a surprise given all we've seen so far, but from the article, you realize that this isn't just someone trying to keep secret things secret with word games, but rather someone who has a rather Machiavellian outlook on things. He decides what he wants to do, and then he'll come up with the justification for it.
    "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.
    That's not something that someone trying to stay inside the law says. That's someone trying to stretch the law to do his personal will.

  • General Alexander is obsessed with collecting every bit of data possible, with little concern for the legal issues associated with such a desire. This one isn't new. We'd already seen that Alexander's infamous mantra was "collect it all," but the FP article shows this going to ridiculous lengths:
    "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.
    Later in the article, someone who worked with General Alexander notes that he believes the legal justifications for any data collection can come later:
    "If he becomes the repository for all that data, he thinks the resources and authorities will follow."
    Having the capability doesn't automatically make it legal. General Alexander seems to think that point is subservient to his own desire to collect all the data, incorrectly believing that the way you find the necessary needles is to collect more haystacks.

  • General Alexander gets so overwhelmed by big data that he starts finding needles in those haystacks where none really exist. This is kind of the key point. The profile makes it clear that General Alexander loves digging through big data, but seems unable to recognize that what comes out of looking at a giant data set isn't automatically true. Multiple instances are discussed of him claiming connections where none actually existed.
    "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."

    [....] 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.
    Loving big data, but not being aware of its limitations is not a good sign -- especially for someone who's trying to always collect even more data.

  • General Alexander's fascination with big data was in part driven by a "mad scientist" friend who followed Alexander from job to job implementing massive projects that were done poorly and with little planning, and rarely did anything useful. To get the full extent of this, you really need to read the article, but the details of James Heath and Alexander's reliance on him -- as well as his inability to actually get stuff working -- are fairly incredible. Here's just one example, and there are many more.
    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."
    This is what happens when you have a combination of people who believe very strongly in one key point -- "big data solves all" -- and then provide them with massive amounts of money and almost no real oversight. It's a "kids in a candy store" mentality that is a serious problem when you realize what kind of "candy" is available.

  • He's somewhat oblivious to the reasons why people are concerned about all of this, because he thinks of himself as a trustworthy guy. This fits with previous things we've heard about General Alexander. He's genuinely perplexed by why people are so upset about this, believing strongly in two things: that he's protecting the safety of Americans, so they should thank him for that, and on top of that, that since he's trustworthy, there's nothing to worry about. This is incredibly naive.
    "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 naivete about this controversy. He thinks, 'What's the problem? I wouldn't abuse this power. Aren't we all honorable people?'...."
    This fits with our earlier article about how he appears to be focused on intentions over actions. And, to some extent you can actually understand how the incentives in his job lead him in exactly that way. He knows that if there's another terrorist attack, he'll take some of the blame for it. Given that, it's no wonder that protecting the 4th Amendment or the legal rights of Americans is low on the priority list. He doesn't get any credit for that. He only loses credit if there's an attack under his watch.
Again the entire profile is worth reading -- including the bits about how he's apparently obsessed with the stupid puzzle game Bejeweled Blitz, and how he once hired a Hollywood set designer to make his base of operations look just like the bridge of the starship Enterprise from Star Trek (complete with wooshing doors) to better "wow" politicians who came to visit. The overall profile is fascinating to read, but scary, because it suggests someone with little actual concern for the Constitution, a strong (if faulty) belief in his own capabilities, and immense power. That's a bad combination, even if he doesn't have "nefarious" intent.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
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    RyanNerd (profile), Sep 9th, 2013 @ 10:51am

    Too busy to read the article? Here's a summary:

    For those of you that don't want to take the time to read the article. Here are the core beliefs of General Alexander:
    1) The ends always justify the means.
    2) More, data. MORE DATA, MORE MORE DATA.
    2a) You will bow down and worship Big Data.
    3) Trust me. I'm a General from the government and I'm here to help you.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2.  
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    Baron von Robber, Sep 9th, 2013 @ 10:53am

    NSA motto

    "All your 1s & 0s, are belong to us"

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 9th, 2013 @ 11:08am

    "He's somewhat oblivious to the reasons why people are concerned about all of this, because he thinks of himself as a trustworthy guy."

    Gee, I wonder why we don't like him or what he does. Maybe it's because his values are more in line with our past enemies such as Nazi Germany's or the Soviet Union's rather than our own.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4.  
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    crade (profile), Sep 9th, 2013 @ 11:18am

    It's starting to feel like they are setting up this guy and / or the NSA as one of them scapegoat to shut the public up for a while on this issue.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5.  
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    Hephaestus (profile), Sep 9th, 2013 @ 11:34am

    Multiple instances are discussed of him claiming connections where none actually existed.

    It comes from statistics, and having too much data. You expect to find the bad guys, then think you have, only to be proven wrong. So you redouble your efforts, and start getting more false positives. Which you believe is a true conspiracy of bad guys. Rinse lather repeat ... and grab a straightjacket for the paranoid delusions that are just around the conspiracy corner.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6.  
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    Hephaestus (profile), Sep 9th, 2013 @ 11:34am

    Multiple instances are discussed of him claiming connections where none actually existed.

    It comes from statistics, and having too much data. You expect to find the bad guys, then think you have, only to be proven wrong. So you redouble your efforts, and start getting more false positives. Which you believe is a true conspiracy of bad guys. Rinse lather repeat ... and grab a straightjacket for the paranoid delusions that are just around the conspiracy corner.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7.  
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    Internet Zen Master (profile), Sep 9th, 2013 @ 11:43am

    Re: Too busy to read the article? Here's a summary:

    Gen. Alexander: "COLLECT ALL THE DATA!"

    When the head of a military organization has the mentality of the first half of a two-panel Internet comic, you're gonna have a bad time.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 9th, 2013 @ 11:50am

    Re: Re: Too busy to read the article? Here's a summary:

    I suppose it's better than being in command of Catch-22.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9.  
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    weneedhelp (profile), Sep 9th, 2013 @ 11:51am

    US gov

    Is out of control.

     

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  10.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 9th, 2013 @ 12:01pm

    Getting laid?

    If he means climaxing while massaging his data, no I guess I don't. Let us all hope he has a good stock of waterproof keyboards. He should have enough of a stroke file to fuel his libido for immortality

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11.  
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    Namel3ss (profile), Sep 9th, 2013 @ 12:02pm

    Re: NSA motto

    DAMN beat me to it! grr...

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12.  
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    lfroen (profile), Sep 9th, 2013 @ 12:15pm

    What a waste

    If I were US citizen, I would be enraged on this kind of waste. Even if I don't care about legality of all this crap: it's still wasted money. There's no that many terrorists in US to justify this kind of spending.
    It's not even that good for "dissident control" - if you want to harass them, you still have to arrest them, drag through courts etc. You don't have to _find_ those people: they will march for protest on main street.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13.  
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    Internet Zen Master (profile), Sep 9th, 2013 @ 12:19pm

    Re: Re: Re: Too busy to read the article? Here's a summary:

    Good point.

    But seriously though. Someone needs to tell the dear General to take that red bucket off his head.

    He is not the law, nor is he Judge Dredd, no matter how much he thinks to the contrary.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14.  
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    CommonSense (profile), Sep 9th, 2013 @ 12:22pm

    He's not saying...

    He's not saying it's legal, he's trying to say that when HE does it it's not ILLEGAL!

    That sounds vaguely familiar for some reason...

    maybe if the previous person who stated that same sort of justification for crimes had been truly punished, people wouldn't still think the American public is essentially a battered wife who simply needs to hear "I'm sorry, it won't happen again." to go on about business as usual...

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15.  
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    art guerrilla (profile), Sep 9th, 2013 @ 12:44pm

    make no mistake...

    ...as much as the puppetmasters may hate other puppetmasters, they hate us puppets most of all ! ! !

    pelosi, boehner, et al play NOMINAL adversaries in washingtoon, but they are REALLY on the 'same side' of the hydra-headed Korporate Money Party: AGAINST all us li'l peeps...

    ANYTHING which threatens their thin veil of so-called partisanship being rent, and seeing the real bone-deep corruption; gets a united front of ALL OF THEM screaming at the top of their lungs: MOTHERFUCKING EAGLES, bitchez ! ! !

    no, those pukes don't give a flying flip about us 99%, only the 1% get what they want, and we get the short end of the stick...

    art guerrilla
    aka ann archy
    eof

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16.  
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    Rikuo (profile), Sep 9th, 2013 @ 12:56pm

    "he once hired a Hollywood set designer to make his base of operations look just like the bridge of the starship Enterprise from Star Trek (complete with wooshing doors"
    "because it suggests someone with little actual concern for the Constitution,"

    He does have concern for the Constitution. It's just not the piece of paper signed by a group of men in the late 1700s. He's concerned with the Constitution-class Starship Enterprise, as your article clearly states.

     

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  17.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 9th, 2013 @ 1:05pm

    While we're all wallowing in conspiracy theories, pointlessly I might add, consider this. If what this article is saying about Herr General is true, and I think it probably is, there's only one answer. He must be fired, along with Mr. Heath and anyone else closely associated with them, IMMEDIATELY. He's killing us, at least economically and politically. Actually I must ask why he's still there after several years of mismanagement. Has he somehow acquired or recreated J. Edgar's blackmail files?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18.  
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    Internet Zen Master (profile), Sep 9th, 2013 @ 1:10pm

    Re:

    More importantly:

    Does his Op-center have the wooshing doors which open automatically, or does Alexander occasionally bump face-first into them because the doors haven't recognized their cue yet (like they did in the original Star Trek)?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19.  
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    That One Guy (profile), Sep 9th, 2013 @ 1:13pm

    "He's somewhat oblivious to the reasons why people are concerned about all of this, because he thinks of himself as a trustworthy guy."

    The fact that his personal information isn't being grabbed, cataloged, and looked over might have something to do with his inability to understand the outrage too.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20.  
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    That One Guy (profile), Sep 9th, 2013 @ 1:16pm

    Re: Re:

    Great, now I've got this mental image of him being in a hurry to get somewhere, smashing face-first into a currently *Whoosh*-free door and yelling out 'Dammit Scotty, I thought you fixed that!'

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 9th, 2013 @ 1:46pm

    Beam Me up!

    "how he once hired a Hollywood set designer to make his base of operations look just like the bridge of the starship Enterprise from Star Trek"

    Overheard coming from under his desk.

    "I'm Giv'n er all she's got Cap'n"

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 9th, 2013 @ 1:51pm

    World Dominance... 'n stuff

    "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 naivete about this controversy. He thinks, 'What's the problem? I wouldn't abuse this power. Aren't we all honorable people?'...."

    Has anybody noticed him stroking a white cat?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23.  
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    limbodog (profile), Sep 9th, 2013 @ 1:54pm

    I want this answered.

    The question I think fellows like Gen. Alexander and President Obama should be asked whenever they make a public appearance is this:

    "What actions should the NSA be actively prevented from doing, and what would be the appropriate repercussions if its members are found to have done them?"

    I'm wondering if the response will be like when President Bush the younger was asked what mistakes he had made and he couldn't think of any.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24.  
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    FM Hilton, Sep 9th, 2013 @ 2:05pm

    Like a movie character

    Named Dr. Stranglove.

    But far more dangerous, because he's playing 2 roles: the Doctor and General Buck Turgidson at once, with real power to destroy a lot of people's lives, with the push of a button or two. Not physically, but nonetheless destructive.

    This is who we've got running the NSA: the whole cast of the movie.

    It'd be funny if it weren't scarier than hell.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 9th, 2013 @ 2:18pm

    Perhaps General Alexander is secretly channeling Col. Nathan R. Jessep?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5j2F4VcBmeo

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  26.  
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    Joe2, Sep 9th, 2013 @ 7:37pm

    Machiavellian

    1) The Prince was not his only work.
    2) It isn't always evil people that think that way.
    3) Please don't insult Machiavellians by comparing them to someone so indiscreet!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  27.  
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    Joe2, Sep 9th, 2013 @ 7:39pm

    Re: World Dominance... 'n stuff

    I'm thinking more like the guy in the Cube movie series.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  28.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 9th, 2013 @ 8:48pm

    Ask the Lawyers Why

    Any time a person in a power position admits doing wrong or making a mistake - however innocently or inadvertently, the land sharks immediately attack with multiple lawsuits and much negative press. I don't blame them for not admitting things. They CAN'T.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  29.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 10th, 2013 @ 12:44am

    "The rule of law" is for the sheeple.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  30.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 10th, 2013 @ 5:05am

    It turns out that all [that] those guys were connected to were pizza shops.

    If you've ever been in Providence you know that pizza shops can be a prime center of RICO-like activity.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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