Niqnaq

alexander is a totally evil, mad, strangelove-type motherfucker, and i bet he scares the pants off little obama

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Inside General Keith Alexander’s all-out, barely-legal totally illegal drive to build the ultimate spy machine (abridged)
Shane Harris, ForeignPolicy.com, Sep 9 2013

On Aug 1 2005, Lt-Gen Keith Alexander reported for duty as the 16th director of the NSA. USAF Gen Michael Hayden had been running the NSA since 1999. Alexander seemed perfect for the job. He 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. Not long after 9/11, when Alexander was the general in charge of the Army’s Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM) at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, he began insisting that Hayden’s 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 US or planning attacks on the homeland. By law, the NSA had to scrub intercepted communications of most references to US citizens before those communications can be shared with other agencies. But Alexander wanted the NSA “to bend the pipe towards him,” says one of the former officials, so that he could siphon off metadata, the digital records of phone calls and email traffic that can be used to map out a terrorist organization based on its members’ communications patterns. Hayden thought Alexander was out of bounds. INSCOM was supposed to provide battlefield intelligence for troops and special operations forces overseas, not use raw intelligence to find terrorists within US borders. But Alexander had a more expansive view of what military intelligence agencies could do under the law. In Nov 2001, the general in charge of all Army intelligence had informed his personnel, including Alexander, that the military had broad authority to collect and share information about USAians, so long as they were “reasonably believed to be engaged” in terrorist activities, the general wrote in a widely distributed memo. The general didn’t say how exactly to make this determination, but it was all the justification Alexander needed. Hayden denied Alexander’s request for NSA data. And there was some irony in that decision. At the same time, Hayden was overseeing a highly classified program to monitor USAians’ phone records and Internet communications without permission from a court. At least one component of that secret domestic spying program would later prompt senior Justice Dept officials to threaten resignation because they thought it was illegal. But that was a presidentially authorized program run by a top-tier national intelligence agency. Alexander was a midlevel general who seemed to want his own domestic spying operation. Hayden was so troubled that he reported Alexander to his commanding general, a former colleague says.

The showdown over bending the NSA’s pipes was emblematic of Alexander’s approach to intelligence, one he has honed over the course of a 39-year military career and deploys today as the director of the country’s most powerful spy agency. 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. That strategy has worked well for Alexander. He has served longer than any director in the NSA’s history, and today he stands atop a US surveillance empire in which signals intelligence is the coin of the realm. In 2010, he became the first commander of the newly-created CYBERCOM, making him responsible for defending military computer networks against spies, hackers, and foreign armed forces,- and for fielding a new generation of cyberwarriors trained to penetrate adversaries’ networks. Fueled by a series of relentless and increasingly revealing leaks from Edward Snowden, the full scope of Alexander’s master plan is coming to light. Today, the agency is routinely scooping up and storing USAians’ phone records. It is screening their emails and text messages, even though the spy agency can’t always tell the difference between an innocent USAian and a foreign terrorist. The NSA uses corporate proxies to monitor up to 75% of Internet traffic inside the US. And it has spent billions of dollars on a secret campaign to foil encryption technologies that individuals, corporations, and governments around the world had long thought protected the privacy of their communications from US intelligence agencies. The NSA was already a data behemoth when Alexander took over. But under his watch, the breadth, scale, and ambition of its mission have expanded beyond anything ever contemplated by his predecessors. In 2007, the NSA began collecting information from Internet and technology companies under the so-called PRISM program. In essence, it was a pipes-bending operation. The NSA gets access to the companies’ raw data, including e-mails, video chats, and messages sent through social media, and analysts then mine it for clues about terrorists and other foreign intelligence subjects. Similar to how Alexander wanted the NSA to feed him with intelligence at INSCOM, now some of the world’s biggest technology companies including Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Apple are feeding the NSA. But unlike Hayden, the companies cannot refuse Alexander’s advances. The PRISM program operates under a legal regime, put in place a few years after Alexander arrived at the NSA, that allows the agency to demand broad categories of information from technology companies. Never in history has one agency of the US government had the capacity, as well as the legal authority, to collect and store so much electronic information. Leaked NSA documents show the agency sucking up data from approximately 150 collection sites on six continents. The agency estimates that 1.6% of all data on the Internet flows through its systems on a given day, an amount of information about 50 percent larger than what Google processes in the same period.

When Alexander arrived, the NSA was secretly investing in experimental databases to store these oceans of electronic signals and give analysts access to it all in as close to real time as possible. Under his direction, it has helped pioneer new methods of massive storage and retrieval. That has led to a data glut. The agency has collected so much information that it ran out of storage capacity at its 350-acre headquarters at Fort Meade, outside Washington. At a cost of more than $2b, it has built a new processing facility in the Utah desert, and it recently broke ground on a complex in Maryland. There is a line item in the NSA’s budget just for research on “coping with information overload.” Yet it’s still not enough for Alexander, who has proposed installing the NSA’s surveillance equipment on the networks of defense contractors, banks, and other organizations deemed essential to the US economy or national security. Never has this intelligence agency, whose primary mission is espionage, stealing secrets from other governments, proposed to become the electronic watchman of US businesses. This kind of radical expansion shouldn’t come as a surprise. In fact, it’s a hallmark of Alexander’s career. During the Iraq war, for example, he pioneered a suite of real-time intelligence analysis tools that aimed to scoop up every phone call, email, and text message in the country in a search for terrorists and insurgents. Military and intelligence officials say it provided valuable insights that helped turn the tide of the war. It was also unprecedented in its scope and scale. He has transferred that architecture to a global scale now, and with his responsibilities at CYBERCOM, he is expanding his writ into the world of computer network defense and cyber warfare. As a result, the NSA has never been more powerful, more pervasive, and more politically imperilled. The same philosophy that turned Alexander into a giant, acquire as much data from as many sources as possible, is now threatening to undo him. Alexander today finds himself in the unusual position of having to publicly defend once-secret programs and reassure USAians that the growth of his agency, which employs more than 35,000 people, is not a cause for alarm.

In July, the House of Representatives almost approved a law to constrain the NSA’s authorities, the closest Congress has come to reining in the agency since the 9/11 attacks. That narrow defeat for surveillance opponents has set the stage for a Supreme Court ruling on whether metadata, the information Alexander has most often sought aboutUSAians, should be afforded protection under the Fourth Amendment‘s prohibition against “unreasonable searches and seizures,” which would make metadata harder for the government to acquire. Congress critturs and the public are increasingly skeptical about what Alexander has been doing with all the data he’s collecting, and why he’s been willing to push the bounds of the law to get it. If he’s going to preserve his empire, he’ll have to mount the biggest charm offensive of his career. Fortunately for him, Alexander has spent as much time building a political base of power as a technological one. Alexander is as skilled a Washington knife fighter as they come. To get the NSA job, he allied himself with the Pentagon brass, most notably Donald Rumsfeld, who distrusted Hayden and thought he had been trying to buck the Pentagon’s control of the NSA. Alexander also called on all the right committee members on Capitol Hill, the overseers and appropriators who hold the NSA’s future in their hands. 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. Alexander wowed members of Congress with his eye-popping command center. And he took time to sit with them in their offices and explain the intricacies of modern technology in simple, plain-spoken language. He demonstrated a command of the subject without intimidating those who had none. Alexander has had to muster every ounce of his political savvy since the Snowden leaks started coming in June. In closed-door briefings, Congress critturs have accused him of deceiving them about how much information he has been collecting on USAians.

Alexander has a distinct advantage over most, if not all, intelligence chiefs in the government today. He actually understands the multibillion-dollar technical systems that he’s running. In that respect, he had a leg up on Hayden, who colleagues say is a good big-picture thinker but lacks the geek gene that Alexander was apparently born with. Alexander, 61, has been a techno-spy since the beginning of his military career. After graduating from West Point in 1974, he went to West Germany, where he was initiated in the dark arts of signals intelligence. Alexander spent his time eavesdropping on military communications emanating from East Germany and Czechoslovakia. He was interested in the mechanics that supported this brand of espionage. He rose quickly through the ranks. At the turn of the century, Alexander took the big-data approach to counter-terrorism. How well that method worked continues to be a matter of intense debate. Surely discrete interceptions of terrorists’ phone calls and emails have helped disrupt plots and prevent attacks. But huge volumes of data don’t always help catch potential plotters. Sometimes, the drive for more data just means capturing more ordinary people in the surveillance driftnet. 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. A retired military officer who worked with Alexander also describes a “massive network chart” that was purportedly about AQ and its connections in Afghanistan. Those network charts have become more massive now that Alexander is running the NSA. When analysts try to determine if a particular person is engaged in terrorist activity, they may look at the communications of people who are as many as three steps, or “hops,” removed from the original target. This means that even when the NSA is focused on just one individual, the number of people who are being caught up in the agency’s electronic nets could easily be in the tens of millions. According to an internal audit, the NSA’s surveillance operations have been beset by human error and fooled by moving targets. After the NSA’s legal authorities were expanded and the PRISM program was implemented, the agency inadvertently collected USAians’ communications thousands of times each year, between 2008 and 2012, in violation of privacy rules and the law. Yet the NSA still pursued a counter-terrorism strategy that relies on ever-bigger data sets. Under Alexander’s leadership, one of the agency’s signature analysis tools was a digital graph that showed how hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people, places, and events were connected to each other. They were displayed as a tangle of dots and lines. Critics called it the BAG, for “big ass graph” and said it produced very few useful leads. CIA officials in charge of tracking overseas terrorist cells were particularly unimpressed by it.

Given his pedigree, it’s unsurprising that Alexander is a devotee of big data. But Alexander was never alone in his obsession. An obscure civilian engineer named James Heath has been a constant companion for a significant portion of Alexander’s career. More than any one person, Heath influenced how the general went about building an information empire. 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. Heath has followed Alexander from post to post, but he almost always stays in the shadows. Heath recently retired from government service as the senior science advisor to the NSA director, Alexander’s personal tech guru. Precisely where Alexander met Heath is unclear. They have worked together since at least 1995, when Alexander commanded the 525th Military Intelligence Brigade and Heath was his scientific sidekick. Heath was building tools that helped commanders on the field integrate information from different sensors, such as reconnaissance planes, satellites, signals intercepts, and “see” it on their screens. Later, Heath would work with tools that showed how words in a document or pages on the Internet were linked together, displaying those connections in the form of three-dimensional maps and graphs. At the Information Dominance Center, Heath built a program called the “automatic ingestion manager.” It was a search engine for massive sets of data, and in 1999, he started taking it for test runs on the Internet. In one experiment, the retired officer says, the ingestion manager searched for all web pages linked to the website of the DIA. Those included every page on the DIA’s site, and the tool scoured and copied them so aggressively that it was mistaken for a hostile cyber-attack. The site’s automated defenses kicked in and shut it down. On another occasion, the searching tool landed on an anti-war website while searching for information about the conflict in Kosovo. “We immediately got a letter from the owner of the site wanting to know why was the military spying on him,” the retired officer says. As far as he knows, the owner took no legal action against the Army, and the test run was stopped.

Those experiments with “bleeding-edge” technology, as the denizens of the Information Dominance Center liked to call it, shaped Heath and Alexander’s approach to technology in spy craft. And when they ascended to the NSA in 2005, their influence was broad and profound. Heath was at Alexander’s side for the expansion of Internet surveillance under the PRISM program. Colleagues say it fell largely to him to design technologies that tried to make sense of all the new information the NSA was gobbling up. But Heath had developed a reputation for building expensive systems that never really work as promised and then leaving them half-baked in order to follow Alexander on to some new mission. Heath’s reputation followed him to the NSA. In early 2010, weeks after a young AQ terrorist with a bomb sewn into his underwear tried to bring down a US airliner over Detroit on Xmas Day, Then-DNI Blair called for a new tool that would help the disparate intelligence agencies better connect the dots about terrorism plots. The NSA, the State Dept, and the CIA each had possessed fragments of information about the so-called underwear bomber’s intentions, but there had been no dependable mechanism for integrating them all and providing what one former national security official described as “a quick-reaction capability” so that US security agencies would be warned about the bomber before he got on the plane. Blair put the NSA in charge of building this new capability, and the task eventually fell to Heath. Like other projects of Heath’s, the former official says, this one was never fully implemented. As a result, the intelligence community still didn’t have a way to stitch together clues from different databases in time to stop the next would-be bomber. Heath and Alexander moved on to the next big project.

As immense as the NSA’s mission has become, patrolling the world’s data fields in search of terrorists, spies, and computer hackers, it is merely one phase of Alexander’s plan. The NSA’s primary mission is to protect government systems and information. But under his leadership, the agency is also extending its reach into the private sector in unprecedented ways. Toward the end of Bush 43’s administration, Alexander helped persuade Defense Dept officials to set up a computer network defense project to prevent foreign intelligence agencies, mainly China’s, from stealing weapons plans and other national secrets from government contractors’ computers. Under the Defense Industrial Base initiative, also known as the DIB, the NSA provides the companies with intelligence about the cyber-threats it’s tracking. In return, the companies report back about what they see on their networks and share intelligence with each other. Pentagon officials say the program has helped stop some cyber-espionage. But many corporate participants say Alexander’s primary motive has not been to share what the NSA knows about hackers. It’s to get intelligence from the companies, to make them the NSA’s digital scouts. What is billed as an information-sharing arrangement has sometimes seemed more like a one-way street, leading straight to the NSA’s headquarters at Fort Meade. After the DIB was up and running, Alexander proposed going further. The former administration official says:

He wanted to create a wall around other sensitive institutions in USAia, to include financial institutions, and to install equipment to monitor their networks. He wanted this to be running in every Wall Street bank.

That aspect of the plan has never been fully implemented, largely due to legal concerns. If a company allowed the government to install monitoring equipment on its systems, a court could decide that the company was acting as an agent of the government. And if surveillance were conducted without a warrant or legitimate connection to an investigation, the company could be accused of violating the Fourth Amendment. Warrantless surveillance can be unconstitutional regardless of whether the NSA or Google or Goldman Sachs is doing it. The DIB experiment was a first step toward Alexander’s taking more control over the country’s cyber-defenses, and it was illustrative of his assertive approach to the problem. While it’s a given that the NSA cannot monitor the entire Internet on its own and that it needs intelligence from companies, Alexander has questioned whether companies have the capacity to protect themselves. He said recently at a security conference in Canada:

What we see is an increasing level of activity on the networks. I am concerned that this is going to break a threshold where the private sector can no longer handle it and the government is going to have to step in.

Now, for the first time in Alexander’s career, Congress and the general public are expressing deep misgivings about sharing information with the NSA or letting it install surveillance equipment. A Rasmussen poll of likely voters taken in June found that 68% believe it’s likely the government is listening to their communications, despite repeated assurances from Alexander and Obama that the NSA is only collecting anonymous metadata about USAians’ phone calls. In another Rasmussen poll, 57% of respondents said they think it’s likely that the government will use NSA intelligence “to harass political opponents.” Some who know Alexander say he doesn’t appreciate the depth of public mistrust and cynicism about the NSA’s mission. Even Alexander’s strongest critics don’t doubt his good intentions. Two of the retired military officers who have worked with him say Alexander was seared by the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 and later the 9/11 attacks, a pair of major intelligence failures that occurred while he was serving in senior-level positions in military intelligence. They said he vowed to do all he could to prevent another attack that could take the lives of USAians and military service members.

But those who’ve worked closely with Alexander say he has become blinded by the power of technology. On Jul 30 in Las Vegas, Alexander sat down for dinner with a group of civil liberties activists and Internet security researchers. He was in town to give a keynote address the next day at the Black Hat security conference. The mood at the table was chilly, according to people who were in attendance. In 2012, Alexander had won plaudits for his speech at Black Hat’s sister conference, Def Con, in which he’d implored the assembled community of experts to join him in their mutual cause: protecting the Internet as a safe space for speech, communications, and commerce. Now, however, nearly two months after the first leaks from Snowden, the people around the table wondered whether they could still trust the NSA director. His dinner companions questioned Alexander about the NSA’s legal authority to conduct massive electronic surveillance. Two guests had recently written a NYT op-ed calling the NSA’s activities “criminal.” Alexander was quick to debate the finer points of the law and defend his agency’s programs, at least the ones that have been revealed, as closely monitored and focused solely on terrorists’ information. But he also tried to convince his audience that they should help keep the NSA’s surveillance system running. In so many words, Alexander told them: The terrorists only have to succeed once to kill thousands of people. And if they do, all of the rules we have in place to protect people’s privacy will go out the window. Alexander cast himself as the ultimate defender of civil liberties, as a man who needs to spy on some people in order to protect everyone. He knows that in the wake of another major terrorist attack on US soil, the NSA will be unleashed to find the perpetrators and stop the next assault. Random searches of metadata, broad surveillance of purely domestic communications, warrantless seizure of stored communications, presumably these and other extraordinary measures would be on the table. Alexander may not have spelled out just what the NSA would do after another homeland strike, but the message was clear: We don’t want to find out. Alexander was asking his dinner companions to trust him. But his credibility has been badly damaged. Alexander was heckled at his speech the next day at Black Hat. He had been slated to talk at Def Con too, but the organizers rescinded their invitation after the Snowden leaks. And even among Alexander’s cohort, trust is flagging. 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 USAians’ phone records and examining enormous amounts of Internet traffic.

Written by niqnaq

September 14, 2013 at 6:09 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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