Inside the Calculating and Geeky Mind of the NSA Director

By Marina Koren

September 18, 2013

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."

By Marina Koren

September 18, 2013