News / USA

Four-Star General in Eye of US Cyber Storm

General Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency (NSA) and U.S. Cyber Command speaks to reporters during the Reuters Cybersecurity Summit in Washington, May 14, 2013.
General Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency (NSA) and U.S. Cyber Command speaks to reporters during the Reuters Cybersecurity Summit in Washington, May 14, 2013.
Reuters
Depending on your point of view, U.S. General Keith Alexander is either an Army four-star trying to stave off a cyber Pearl Harbor attack, or an overreaching spy chief who wants to eavesdrop on the private emails of every American.
 
Alexander, 61, has headed the National Security Agency since 2005, making him the longest-serving chief in the history of an intelligence unit so secretive that it was dubbed “No Such Agency.” Alexander also runs U.S. Cyber Command, which he helped to create in 2010 to oversee the country's offensive and defensive operations in cyberspace.
 
The dual role means Alexander has more knowledge about cyber threats than any other U.S. official, since the NSA already protects the most sensitive U.S. data, extracts intelligence from foreign networks and uses wiretaps to track suspected terrorists. But it also puts the general at the center of an intense debate over how much power the government should have to spy on private citizens in the name of protecting national security.
 
“He's lasted as long as he has because he's focused and he's persistent. I've never heard him yell,” said retired four-star general Michael Hayden, who was Alexander's predecessor at the NSA. “He doesn't spread himself too thin. He decides what's important and puts his personal energy into those things.”
 
Raised near Syracuse, New York, Alexander graduated from West Point, the Army's elite training academy, in 1974. He had planned to serve in the military for just five years but got hooked on the work when he served in Germany as an intelligence officer, monitoring what he once described as “sensitive issues on the border of East Germany and Czechoslovakia.”
 
After Germany, Alexander held a series of increasingly senior intelligence jobs and spent the first Gulf War as a senior Army intelligence officer in Saudi Arabia. Over the years, he also earned four master's degrees, in electronic warfare, physics, business and national security studies.
 
In 2005, after two years as the Army's top intelligence officer, Alexander replaced Hayden at the helm of the NSA, where he continued to run a warrantless surveillance program initiated after the Sept. 11, 2001, hijacking attacks.
 
The program, which bypassed a federal court that authorizes domestic wiretapping, was first revealed late in 2005, sparking lawsuits, congressional hearings, leak investigations and a furor that still dogs the agency - and Alexander.
 
Against this backdrop, his push to expand the NSA's role in domestic cybersecurity has drawn criticism from privacy advocates, and sometimes put Alexander at odds with the White House and the Department of Homeland Security, according to current and former officials.
 
Alexander had wanted the NSA to control a government security program to aid non-military companies against cyber threats, but others at DHS insisted on civilian control of the project, and they ultimately prevailed, the officials said.
 
Jane Holl Lute, who stepped down this month as the No. 2 at DHS, said she has had intense conversations with Alexander about the roles of their two agencies in improving cyber security. She declined to detail any differences of opinion, but said they were all judgment calls and she respected the general.
 
“He pushed up his hill, and I pushed up mine, and what we came to was essentially two sides of the same hill,” Lute said.
 
“We didn't always call balls and strikes the same way. That does not mean he wasn't trying to get it right,” she said. “I would challenge anyone who would question his integrity.”
 
Heading for retirement
 
Alexander, who told Reuters he plans to retire in the first half of 2014, has presided over one of the busiest times in the NSA's 61-year history, from tracking the cellphone calls that helped pinpoint Osama bin Laden to drawing national attention to cybersecurity. He played a key role in shaping a series of recent cyber policy orders from the Obama administration.
 
More controversial has been the NSA's construction of a $1.2 billion data center in Utah, which has fanned concerns about the agency's expansive eavesdropping capabilities.
 
NSA whistleblower William Binney, a former senior crypto-mathematician, last year accused the agency of building the Utah facility to collect data on virtually every American, including private emails, cellphone calls and Google searches.
 
Alexander told the Reuters Cybersecurity Summit that such claims about the Utah project are completely false. He rattled off a long list of agencies that oversee the NSA's work, including the Justice Department, White House and Congress. “Either all of them are complicit in us doing this or the allegations are absolute baloney. It's the latter,” he said.
 
He told Reuters the center was built in Utah instead of Maryland, where the NSA is based, to take advantage of cheaper electricity. “I'm not a brain surgeon,” he said. “But you can try to put power where it's expensive, Maryland, or you can put it (where there is) really cheap power.”
 
According to Alexander, the NSA has its hands full keeping tabs on potential terrorists, and does not have the bandwidth to read the 420 billion emails generated by Americans each day - even though some foreign governments were trying to do that.
 
“The great irony is we're the only ones not spying on the American people,” he quipped.
 
Alexander has tried to make the NSA appear more transparent, crisscrossing the country to talk about cyber issues. He likes to pepper his speeches with jokes, once blaming his late arrival at a Washington event on a “distributed denial of service” hacking attack on city street lights.
 
A gadget lover, Alexander is known to roll up his sleeves to become versant with the latest security technologies. On one flight, he and his aide-de-camp learned “BackTrack,” a Linux-based product that helps people test their network security. Aides say the general often scores over 1 million points on the “Bejeweled Blitz” online puzzle game.
 
Alexander's biggest strength is his ability to reach out to a wide range of audiences, said Shawn Henry, former FBI executive assistant director. He cites a speech Alexander gave at the Defcon hackers conference last year, an appearance that would have been unheard of a few years ago.
 
“Here's a guy who is seen as a symbol of oppressive government ... and he stands up in front of a thousand people, many of whom probably have hacked networks over the years,” said Henry, recalling that Alexander had ditched his decorated uniform for jeans and a black T-shirt. “He is just trying to connect, talking about coordination, collaboration.”
 
Dual hats
 

Alexander has asked the Pentagon to give Cyber Command the same elevated status as other major military commands, but it is not yet clear if that request will be granted.
 
Ira Winkler, president of the Information Systems Security Association, said Alexander's leadership of both NSA and Cyber Command is an advantage but also a complication.
 
“He's stuck in a bad position. He basically has to defend U.S. cyberspace which requires securing commercial websites and  infrastructure, but no one wants him to have access to those networks, since he's also in charge of NSA,” Winkler said.
 
Alexander said he feels strongly that whoever succeeds him should continue to wear the two hats, but not everyone agrees.
 
“How much can you consolidate before it gets so huge that one person can't manage it,” said Harry Raduege, a retired Air Force general and former director of the Defense Information Systems Agency, which oversees military IT systems. “It's an awful lot for somebody at the top of those organizations to deal with.”
 
Still, Raduege, now with the consulting firm Deloitte, said he expects the Pentagon to elevate Cyber Command to a full unified command before the general's retirement next year.
 
“There's no one in a better position to know the depth, magnitude and broad-based nature of today's increasing and evolving cyber threats,” said Raduege. “When Keith Alexander talks about cyber attacks, we should all listen.”

You May Like

Video Analysts: Beijing Parade a 'Bazaar' of Stolen Technology

Show commemorating victory over Japan in World War II involved long, medium and short range missiles, a range of tanks and 200 fighter aircraft More

Bernie Sanders Surge Reflects US Shift on Socialism

Although most analysts say it is unlikely he will get the Democratic nomination, Sanders' campaign opens up questions and issues that are otherwise marginalized More

Video On IS Frontline, Kurdish Fighters Ready for Offensive

Peshmerga soldiers say although they need more heavy artillery, they are poised to take the fight to the Islamic State extremists on their turf More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Drowned Migrant Toddler Photo Triggers European Outragei
X
Henry Ridgwell
September 04, 2015 11:36 AM
The harrowing picture of a drowned three-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach appears to have galvanized Europe’s leaders into doing more to address the refugee crisis. France, Germany and Italy issued a joint call Thursday for compulsory quotas of refugees for all EU states. But there were chaotic scenes in Hungary as police tried to force migrants off a train heading for Austria. Henry Ridgwell has more. And a caution, some of the images in this report may be disturbing.
Video

Video Drowned Migrant Toddler Photo Triggers European Outrage

The harrowing picture of a drowned three-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach appears to have galvanized Europe’s leaders into doing more to address the refugee crisis. France, Germany and Italy issued a joint call Thursday for compulsory quotas of refugees for all EU states. But there were chaotic scenes in Hungary as police tried to force migrants off a train heading for Austria. Henry Ridgwell has more. And a caution, some of the images in this report may be disturbing.
Video

Video Russians Observe 11th Anniversary of Beslan School Attack

This week, Russians have been observing the 11th anniversary of the attack by Islamic militants on a school in Russia's North Caucasus region that killed more than 330 hostages, including 186 children. The three-day siege and massacre that started on September 1, 2004 took place in Beslan, a town in the republic of North Ossetia, and is one of the bloodiest terrorist acts ever in Russia. VOA's Mike Richman reports.
Video

Video Native Americans Debate: Father Serra, Saint or Sinner?

Pope Francis will canonize an 18th century missionary to Spanish California during a papal visit to the United States this month.  But some Native Americans have criticized the elevation to sainthood of the missionary priest, Junipero Serra. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan has more from Los Angeles.
Video

Video Calais School Offers Another Face of Europe’s Migrant Crisis

Europe is facing mounting criticism over how it’s handling its biggest migration crisis since World War II. But not all Europeans believe building walls or passing repressive policies are the answer. A school for migrants in the French port city of Calais, is opening doors and building bonds across nationalities. VOA's Lisa Bryant reports.
Video

Video Kurdish Fighters on IS Frontline Ready for Offensive

Finger on the trigger, the Kurdish Peshmerga soldier stared across the dust at a village taken over by Islamic State extremists. The Kurdistan’s Khazir frontline, just 45 minutes from the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul. And at this point, the militants were less than two kilometers away. VOA's Sharon Behn reports.
Video

Video China Announces Troop Cuts at WWII Parade

Chinese President Xi Jinping Thursday announced plans to cut the world’s largest military force by 300,000 troops. The announcement was made during a massive military parade to commemorate victory over Japan in World War II. The event was shunned by most Western leaders and for some is raising fresh concerns about China’s military ambitions. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video Russia-Japan Relations Cool as Putin Visits China for WWII Anniversary

Russian President Vladimir Putin is in Beijing for commemorations of the 70th anniversary of China's WWII victory over Japan. Putin is expected to visit Japan later this year, but tensions between Tokyo and Moscow over islands disputed since the war, and sanctions over Ukraine, could pour cold water on the plan. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Yemen ‘on Brink of Disaster’ as Medical Shortages Soar

Aid agencies warn Yemen is on the brink of humanitarian disaster – with up to half a million children facing severe malnutrition, and hospitals running out of basic medicines. There are fears Yemen's civil war could escalate as the coalition led by Saudi Arabia tries to drive back Houthi rebels, who seized control of much of the country earlier this year. Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Apps Helping Kenyan Businesses Stay Ahead of Counterfeiters

Counterfeit goods in Kenya cost the government as much as $1 billion each year in lost tax revenues. The fake goods also hurt entrepreneurs who find it hard to carve out a niche in the market and retain customers. But as Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi, information technology is being used to try to beat the problem.
Video

Video Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOA

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Iraq's southern wetlands are in crisis. These areas are the spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, and source of livelihood for fishermen and herders. Faith Lapidus has more.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Rebuilding New Orleans' Music Scene

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, threatening to wash away its vibrant musical heritage along with its neighborhoods, the beat goes on. As Bronwyn Benito and Faith Lapidus report, a Musicians' Village is preserving the city's unique sound.
Video

Video In Russia, Auto Industry in Tailspin

Industry insiders say country relies too heavily on imports as inflation cuts too many consumers out of the market. Daniel Schearf has more from Moscow.
Video

Video Scientist Calls Use of Fetal Tissue in Medical Research Essential

An anti-abortion group responsible for secret recordings of workers at a women's health care organization claims the workers shown are offering baby parts for sale, a charge the organization strongly denies. While the selling of fetal tissue is against the law in the United States, abortion and the use of donated fetal tissue for medical research are both legal. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.

VOA Blogs