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 »
‘PULLING A TRUMP’
GOP Budget Chiefs Won’t Invite Administration to Testify
1 days ago
THE DETAILS

The administration will release its 2017 budget blueprint tomorrow, but the House and Senate budget committees won’t be inviting anyone from the White House to come talk about it. “The chairmen of the House and Senate Budget committees released a joint statement saying it simply wasn’t worth their time” to hear from OMB Director Shaun Donovan. Accusing the members of pulling a “Donald Trump,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the move “raises some questions about how confident they are about the kinds of arguments that they could make.”

Source:
A DARK CLOUD OVER TRUMP?
Snowstorm Could Impact Primary Turnout
1 days ago
THE LATEST

A snowstorm is supposed to hit New Hampshire today and “linger into Primary Tuesday.” GOP consultant Ron Kaufman said lower turnout should help candidates who have spent a lot of time in the state tending to retail politicking. Donald Trump “has acknowledged that he needs to step up his ground-game, and a heavy snowfall could depress his figures relative to more organized candidates.”

Source:
IN CASE OF EMERGENCY
A Shake-Up in the Offing in the Clinton Camp?
1 days ago
THE DETAILS

Anticipating a primary loss in New Hampshire on Tuesday, Hillary and Bill Clinton “are considering staffing and strategy changes” to their campaign. Sources tell Politico that the Clintons are likely to layer over top officials with experienced talent, rather than fire their staff en masse.

Source:
THE LAST ROUND OF NEW HAMPSHIRE POLLS
Trump Is Still Ahead, but Who’s in Second?
22 hours ago
THE LATEST

We may not be talking about New Hampshire primary polls for another three-and-a-half years, so here goes:

  • American Research Group’s tracking poll has Donald Trump in the lead with 30% support, followed by Marco Rubio and John Kasich tying for second place at 16%. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders leads Hillary Clinton 53%-41%.
  • The 7 News/UMass Lowell tracking poll has Trump way out front with 34%, followed by Rubio and Ted Cruz with 13% apiece. Among the Democrats, Sanders is in front 56%-40%.
  • A Gravis poll puts Trump ahead with 28%, followed by Kasich with 17% and Rubio with 15%.
IT’S ALL ABOUT SECOND PLACE
CNN Calls the Primary for Sanders and Trump
9 hours ago
THE LATEST

Well that didn’t take long. CNN has already declared Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump the winners of the New Hampshire primary, leaving the rest of the candidates to fight for the scraps. Five minutes later, the Associated Press echoed CNN’s call.

Source:
×