Inside the Calculating and Geeky Mind of the Director of the NSA

The man whose motto is “more information is better” loves Star Trek and online puzzles.

National Journal
Marina Koren
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Marina Koren
Sept. 18, 2013, 9:19 a.m.

What Keith Al­ex­an­der does isn’t a secret: He’s a four-star gen­er­al, com­mand­er of the U.S. Cy­ber Com­mand and dir­ect­or of the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency. How he does it, however, has re­mained down­right murky un­til re­cently, when For­eign Policy‘s Shane Har­ris pub­lished an in­cred­ible, 6,027-word pro­file of the man in charge of the coun­try’s most power­ful spy­ing agency.

The story gives the Amer­ic­an people a look in­to the mind of a man whom they feel knows too much about them, ex­plain­ing just how Al­ex­an­der man­aged to ex­pand the NSA to its cur­rent size and scope. But the de­tails paint the dir­ect­or as more hu­man than evil geni­us. Here’s what you may not have known about the man FP calls “both a sol­dier and spy” with “the heart of a tech geek.”

Al­ex­an­der’s per­son­al motto, “More in­form­a­tion is bet­ter,” in­formed his work even be­fore he took the reins of the NSA in 2005. Fol­low­ing the 9/11 ter­ror­ist at­tacks:

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.

When he was up for the job of dir­ect­or, many saw him as a per­fect fit — ex­cept for Air Force Gen. Mi­chael Hay­den, the man he’d be sucuceed­ing:

“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.”

Al­ex­an­der’s view on U.S. law wor­ried some:

“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.

He is a fan of sci­ence fic­tion, par­tic­u­larly Star Trek:

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.

And of mis­lead­ing visu­al aids:

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.”

He’s also a pretty av­er­age guy:

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 Blitz, the ad­dict­ive puzzle game, on which he says he routinely scores more than 1 mil­lion points.

Those who’ve worked with Al­ex­an­der don’t doubt his good in­ten­tions, but some say he’s be­come “blinded by the power of tech­no­logy”:

“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.”

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