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
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.”

What We're Following See More »
BACKING OUT ON BERNIE
Trump Won’t Debate Sanders After All
1 days ago
THE LATEST

Trump, in a statement: “Based on the fact that the Democratic nominating process is totally rigged and Crooked Hillary Clinton and Deborah Wasserman Schultz will not allow Bernie Sanders to win, and now that I am the presumptive Republican nominee, it seems inappropriate that I would debate the second place finisher. ... I will wait to debate the first place finisher in the Democratic Party, probably Crooked Hillary Clinton, or whoever it may be.”

AKNOWLEDGING THE INEVITABLE
UAW: Time to Unite Behind Hillary
2 days ago
THE DETAILS

"It's about time for unity," said UAW President Dennis Williams. "We're endorsing Hillary Clinton. She's gotten 3 million more votes than Bernie, a million more votes than Donald Trump. She's our nominee." He called Sanders "a great friend of the UAW" while saying Trump "does not support the economic security of UAW families." Some 28 percent of UAW members indicated their support for Trump in an internal survey.

Source:
AP KEEPING COUNT
Trump Clinches Enough Delegates for the Nomination
2 days ago
THE LATEST

"Donald Trump on Thursday reached the number of delegates needed to clinch the Republican nomination for president, completing an unlikely rise that has upended the political landscape and sets the stage for a bitter fall campaign. Trump was put over the top in the Associated Press delegate count by a small number of the party's unbound delegates who told the AP they would support him at the convention."

Source:
TRUMP FLOATED IDEA ON JIMMY KIMMEL’S SHOW
Trump/Sanders Debate Before California Primary?
2 days ago
THE LATEST
CAMPAIGNS INJECTED NEW AD MONEY
California: It’s Not Over Yet
2 days ago
THE LATEST

"Clinton and Bernie Sanders "are now devoting additional money to television advertising. A day after Sanders announced a new ad buy of less than $2 million in the state, Clinton announced her own television campaign. Ads featuring actor Morgan Freeman as well as labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta will air beginning on Fridayin Fresno, Sacramento, and Los Angeles media markets. Some ads will also target Latino voters and Asian American voters. The total value of the buy is about six figures according to the Clinton campaign." Meanwhile, a new poll shows Sanders within the margin of error, trailing Clinton 44%-46%.

Source:
×