Monday, September 9, 2013

The Borg of the NSA


Inside Gen. Keith Alexander's all-out, barely-legal drive to build the ultimate spy machine. 

On Aug. 1, 2005, Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander reported for duty as the 16th director of the National Security Agency, the United States' largest intelligence organization. He seemed perfect for the job. Alexander was a decorated Army intelligence officer and a West Point graduate with master's degrees in systems technology and physics. He had run intelligence operations in combat and had held successive senior-level positions, most recently as the director of an Army intelligence organization and then as the service's overall chief of intelligence. He was both a soldier and a spy, and he had the heart of a tech geek. Many of his peers thought Alexander would make a perfect NSA director. [...]

Alexander wants as much data as he can get. And he wants to hang on to it for as long as he can. To prevent the next terrorist attack, he thinks he needs to be able to see entire networks of communications and also go "back in time," as he has said publicly, to study how terrorists and their networks evolve. To find the needle in the haystack, he needs the entire haystack. [...]


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.  [...]

"He is well aware that he will be criticized if there's another attack," the staffer says. "He has said many times, 'My job is to protect the American people. And I have to be perfect.'"

There's an implied threat in that statement. If Alexander doesn't get all the information he wants, he cannot do his job. "He never says it explicitly, but the message is, 'You don't want to be the one to make me miss,'" says the former administration official. "You don't want to be the one that denied me these capabilities before the next attack."   [...]

One of the retired military officers, who worked with Alexander on several big-data projects, said he was shaken by revelations that the agency is collecting all Americans' phone records and examining enormous amounts of Internet traffic. "I've not changed my opinion on the right balance between security versus privacy, but what the NSA is doing bothers me," he says. "It's the massive amount of information they're collecting. I know they're not listening to everyone's phone calls. No one has time for that. But speaking as an analyst who has used metadata, I do not sleep well at night knowing these guys can see everything. That trust has been lost." 

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