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.

Filed Under: 4th amendment, keith alexader, michael hayden, nsa, nsa surveillance


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Sep 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"

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