NSA director Keith Alexander might be the most famous spy in America right now. Everyone wants to know who's really behind the agency's widespread snooping. And now a lengthy profile of Alexander in Foreign Policy invites even more intrigue. It also reveals some of the general's weird ways.
The core questions raised about Alexander the "cowboy" in the FP story stem from revelations in Edward Snowden's leak of confidential NSA documents earlier this summer. "Cowboy" doesn't quite cut it, though. Alexander sounds a bit more eccentric than that:
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 chair" 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 Picard," says a retired officer in charge of VIP visits.
Well that's odd, but it doesn't explain his decisions as NSA director. Why, for instance, did Alexander expand the NSA's purview with programs like PRISM that flirted with the line between what's legal and what's not? The general did it because he believed that big data and technology could protect the nation. That's not such a bad thing to believe in! However, sometimes Alexander's approach can be very misleading. For example:
"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 sceptical. Later, we had a chance to review the information. It turns out that all [that] those guys were connected to were pizza shops."
Another official remembered a chart that Alexander had drawn up to identify all of the terrorists in Afghanistan. When they checked the research, they found no evidence of terrorist activity and discovered that a quarter of the targets on Alexander's list were already dead.
Well hey, even powerful people make mistakes. Surely, Alexander surrounded himself with level-headed folks who can give him a good gut check every now and then. You'd think that his most trusted lieutenant, James Heath, would be the one. But no. Heath is kind of crazy:
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 official.
So the director of the NSA is a trekkie? And his right hand man is an "evil genius?" And that replica of the Enterprise bridge was built with taxpayer dollars? OK then.
If you're still curious about Keith Alexander, check out the Alexander profile in full. (Spoiler: The general's favourite iPhone game is Bejeweled Blits.) [FP]