(Source: Paramount TV)
Gen. Alexander effectively argues sometimes you have destroy a citizen's civil liberties to save them

The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) is by no means spying on Americans or authorized to do so... as long as you don't consider it "spying" to record virtually every detail of a call record (including location information, according to some reports) and virtually all unencrypted digital messages (and work to weaken global encryption standards to get that encrypted traffic as well).  

Of course, storing the information is one thing, but actually digging into the details of law-abiding Americans' lives is illegal right?  Okay, so maybe the NSA violated this law 3,000+ times a year with an undetermined number of Americans targeted in each incident, with no criminal penalties for agents who broke the law.  But we're safer from terrorists, right?  Maybe?

If you catch the drift, Americans are learning the hard way that their country is engaging on massive spying -- including on 99 percent of its own citizens (depending on your definition of spying).  

I. Generals Gone Wild -- How NSA Chief Fancied Himself Captain Picard

But even for those who have come to terms with this newly realized loss of privacy and the frustration that your government is (according to some) robbing from the working class and giving to the rich owners of intelligence contractors, the government still finds new and special ways to make your stomach turn.

Take Gen. Keith Alexander, the NSA's 61 year-old chief, who was profiled in a new exposé on Foreign Post.  The piece describes how Gen. Alexander -- a West Point graduate, holding masters degrees in physics and systems technology, and proud owner of a sterling record as an Army Intelligence Officer -- was a key instigator in steering the nation towards its current path of Orwellian, ubiquitous spying on its own citizens.

General Keith Alexander
Gen. Keith Alexander is viewed by critics as a naive, power-hungry proponent of Orwellian spying. [Image Source: DefenseTech]

Gen. Alexander's exploits began in part in 2001.  While serving as the top commanding officer stationed at the Army's Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM) at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, Gen Alexander had seized on the political momentum from the terrorist attacks of 9/11 to demand the NSA (then under Gen. Michael Hayden) give it access to data on U.S. citizens.  

At the time (as mentioned previously) the NSA was collecting this data, but unlike today it had much stauncher data scrubbing procedures, to try to erase any collected traffic from American citizens.  Gen. Alexander wanted that traffic, even if that data grab would technically was not authorized by acts of Congress and could be unconstitutional.  Recalls sources:

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.' That caused General Hayden some heartburn.
Keith wanted his hands on the raw data. And he bridled at the fact that NSA didn't want to release the information until it was properly reviewed and in a report.  He felt that from a tactical point of view, that was often too late to be useful.

NSA Director Gen. Alexander
Gen. Alexander climbed the ranks to seize his current post as NSA director, creating monitoring programs that today are at a firestorm of controversy.
[Image Sources: NSA (left); Reuters (right)]

Another source who served at INSCOM under Gen. Alexander recalls:

He said at one point that a lot of things aren't clearly legal, but that doesn't make them illegal.

Most amazingly, Gen. Alexander -- an avid science fiction fan, like many DailyTech readers -- spent taxpayer money to outfit his command office to resemble the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.  The story describes:

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.

A PDF has pictures of this wild splurge:

NSA Star Trek Room

Star Trek

NSA Star Trek room

NSA Star Trek
[Image Source:]

These claims were also confirmed by military documents.  It has not been disclosed how much was spent on this science fiction makeover, but the results appeared to please Gen. Alexander greatly.

II. Gen. Alexander's Predecessor Tried to Punish Him For Spying

While Gen. Hayden wasn't exactly known as an angel on privacy, Gen. Alexander's efforts trouble Gen. Hayden so much he allegedly filed a complaint against the mid-level general to his commanding officer.  But rather than being demoted or otherwise punished, Gen. Alexander was apparently rewarded to Gen. Hayden's dismay.  In 2005 when Gen. Hayden stepped down President George W. Bush (R) tapped Gen. Alexander to take over.  Gen. Hayden was reportedly very concerned about Gen. Alexander's lack of respect for Congressional authority and the Constitution.

Once installed, Gen. Alexander reportedly lobbied President Bush and his successor President Barack Obama (D) to grant him ultimate power.  He argued that by having the ability to see all digital activity, he could safeguard America.  In a sort of "sometimes you have to destroy a village to save it" argument, he pitched that as a responsible party he could use the apparent compromise of civil liberties of Americans on a massive scale to defend Americans' civil liberties against foreign terrorists.

NSA spying taxpayers
Gen. Alexander was critical in instituting PRISM, a sweeping surveillance program -- which at times "accidentally" spied on U.S. citizens. [Image Source: The People's Cube]
Under Gen. Alexander's leadership the NSA was kind of like a Pokemon trainer -- "gotta catch them all".  Except rather than capturing video game monsters, the NSA was capturing the communications of Americans and foreigners alike.  Recalls one source:

Alexander's strategy is the same as Google's: I need to get all of the data.  If he becomes the repository for all that data, he thinks the resources and authorities will follow.

Some of Gen. Alexander's supporters defend him, arguing that he is simply too naieve to realize the giant mountains of data he's grabbing could be abused.  One comments:

He believes they have enough technical safeguards in place at the NSA to protect civil liberties and perform their mission.  They do have a very robust capability -- probably better than any other agency. But he doesn't get that this power can still be abused. Americans want introspection. Transparency is a good thing. He doesn't understand that. In his mind it's 'You should trust me, and in exchange, I give you protection.'

But naive or not, Gen. Alexander has reportedly received many of the sweeping powers of surveillance he sought.  Under the PRISM program companies like Google Inc. (GOOG) and Facebook, Inc. (FB) who were reluctant to hand over valuable customer data to the government were legally forced to do so.  And it was illegal for them to talk about these data grabs.

Google and Facebook became coerced deputies for the NSA. [Image Source: Inquistr]

The program never would have come to light had it not been for the leaks of program slides by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Supporters also say that Gen. Alexander failed to understand that simply paying or ordering a company to do something that would be unconstitutional for the government to demand did not make that monitoring more unconstitutional.  Gen. Alexander often leaned on AT&T, Inc. (T), Microsoft Corp. (MSFT), Oracle Corp. (ORCL), and other friends to spy on users in what he viewed as an ethical third party approach.  In return for their help, under the Defense Industrial Base (DIB) program Gen. Alexander provided resources to help mitigate intellectual property and trade secrets theft by hackers from China, Eastern Europe, and other major hacking hubs.

III. James Heath, the Mini Me to Gen. Alexander's Doctor Evil

According to the Foreign Policy story, Gen. Alexander's anti-privacy campaign has been enabled by a close colleague, civil engineer James Heath.  Sources called Mr. Heath the "mad scientist" of Gen. Alexander's ranks, or the Scotty to Gen. Alexander's Cpt. Kirk.

Until recently Mr. Heath had reportedly followed Gen. Alexander from post to post since at least 1995, hopping agencies in unison with his friend.  Most recently he served as the senior science advisor to the NSA director before his retirement last year.  Comments one source:

He's smart, crazy, and dangerous. He'll push the technology to the limits to get it to do what he wants.

Comments retired NSA technical director Richard "Dickie" George:

The general really looked to him for advice.  Jim didn't mind breaking some eggs to make an omelet. He couldn't do that on his own, but General Alexander could. They brought a sense of needing to get things done. They were a dynamic duo.

At the NSA, Mr. Heath worked to develop new data visualization tactics.  Used properly these methods might catch terrorists.  But given the NSA's trove of information obtain by possibly unconstitutional methods, these tools could also be turned against American citizens to further political agendas and consolidate power.

Mr. Heath began testing an "automatic ingestion manager" in 1999, while with Gen. Alexander at the Information Dominance Center.  The "ingester" crawled the internet, picking up traffic as it went.  In one test, the tool scoured pages associated with the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) so aggressively; it was mistaken for a hostile cyberattack.

And while Mr. Heath's tool often succeeded in dredging up a slew of data, the results were often shoddy.  The report states:

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.

Comments a retired officer:

He moved fairly fast and loose with money and spent a lot of it,  He doubled the size of the Information Dominance Center and then built another facility right next door to it. They didn't need it. It's just what Heath and Alexander wanted to do.  It's a center in search of a customer.

But ultimately Mr. Heath's efforts may have been a clever exercise in reaping taxpayer dollars.  At the time of his NSA appointment, he ran a contractor named Object Sciences Corp. -- an SAIC subsidiary that provided data mining services to the NSA.  

With his recent retirement, Mr. Heath left behind PRISM and other programs, yet more controversial achievements in his campaign against data privacy.

IV. Gen. Alexander Defends Spying, Insists Massive Data Grabs are Needed

Critics argue that Gen. Alexander and his colleague's actions were nothing short of "criminal" and that Gen. Alexander and Mr. Heath can be viewed as "two guys who blew a monumental amount of money."

NSA Badge
[Image Source: Sodahead]

As for sanitizing its collection by ordering service providers to handle data, critics point out that these companies were essentially acting as deputies or agents of the government.  They assert that in many cases federal court cases asking a company to do something unconstitutional on behalf of the government was still ruled as still unconstitutional.

Gen. Alexander is unapologetic about the spying, though, which he views as both necessary and not strictly unconstitutional.  He responds to the story commenting:

The missions of NSA and USCYBERCOM are conducted in a manner that is lawful, appropriate, and effective, and under the oversight of all three branches of the U.S. government.  Our mission is to protect our people and defend the nation within the authorities granted by Congress, the courts and the president. There is an ongoing investigation into the damage sustained by our nation and our allies because of the recent unauthorized disclosure of classified material. Based on what we know to date, we believe these disclosures have caused significant and irreversible harm to the security of the nation.

Of course Gen. Alexander is only one part of the vehicle that's driving this massive data collection.  Presidents Bush and Obama played intimate roles in promoting the data collection, although each has tried to downplay that contribution.

And of course Congress -- who receives much of the "donations" from defense contractors and intelligence contractors has been more than generous in showering these projects with money and new authorizations.  Even if some aspects of the surveillance may remain unconstitutional many have become officially installed in laws passed by Congress.

Obama spying
President Barack Hussein Obama received records amounts of money from private contractors who have profited off of the massive gov't spying programs. [Image Source: Reuters]
Unsurprisingly President Obama -- who received a record amount of campaign contributions from top defense and intelligence contractors -- and many members of Congress awash in these special interest dollars, have noisily defended these efforts.  While Gen. Alexander certainly enjoys a share of the culpability of the shortcomings of these efforts, it's important not to forget the other hosts of the party, lest they look to seize on the General's unpopularity and sacrifice his political career to sate and outraged public.

After all, big data spy spending would never have been possible without the right mix of good intentions, bloodthirsty jihadists, lapses of police competence, political payola, cronyism, and a lust for power.  Good intentions or not, Gen. Alexander may have fallen victim to that latter sin -- but then again, many would say the President and many members of Congress have as well.

Source: Foreign Policy

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