Former NSA director, Gen. Keith Alexander, has given the most “comprehensive public interview” to date since his retirement. The interview was granted to Christopher Joye of the Australia Financial Review.
Before getting into some of the highlights from this more than forty-page long interview, why Joye?
When the Australian Broadcasting Corporation published details from documents from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden showing Australia spied on the president of Indonesia, Joye condemned ABC for collaborating with The Guardian and accused the media organization of violating the country’s Official Secrets Act.
“Under the Officials Secrets section 79 of the Crimes Act a person can be imprisoned for up to seven years for communicating or retaining secret government information, particularly if it prejudices the Commonwealth’s security or defense, when they know it has been illegally supplied to them, when they have no right to retain it, and/or if they fail to take reasonable care to ensure that it is not publicly shared,” Joye wrote.
Joye previously interviewed former director of both the CIA and NSA, Michael Hayden, which was the “most in-depth, on-the-record interview he [had] given to print or visual media.” He also is a fund manager, who previously worked for Goldman Sachs.
In other words, he is the perfect kind of corporate state-identified journalist for a former US intelligence official to talk with if they are looking to spread their propaganda without being challenged at all.
The reason why Alexander chose to do the interview is because he believes “NSA has been fulfilling its responsibilities to the nation and yet it is being constantly vilified and misrepresented in the press.” The media has “incorrectly led” the public to “believe that NSA, and its people, are doing something illegal or improper.”
The House Judiciary Committee passed the USA Freedom Act today. Although it is weaker reform now, if the NSA was not doing something improper or if Congress did not believe the NSA was susceptible to abusing its authority, members of the committee would not have unanimously supported the legislation today.
Joye asks if he really had the 007 parking spot at Fort Meade. He did. It was a fun joke! And, Joye also delves into the critical issue of whether he had a “Hollywood set designer emulate a bridge from the Starship Enterprise in the Army’s Intelligence and Security Command’s ‘Information Dominance Center.'” Alexander says he inherited this from Hayden.
…I believe the thought of my predecessor was, we’re going into a new area—information warfare and cyber—so how do we help build an esprit de corps and come up with something that will help the Army think about this in a new light? We’ve got to get people energized about carrying out this mission set. We’ve got to have them come in and be creatively inspired to bring disparate data together to help secure our nation…
“Great folks from Imagineering”—Walt Disney Company—apparently came in and built this. Taxpayer dollars were contracted to make an espionage hub a Tomorrowland attraction.
Joye thought some of NSA’s “operational victories” have been obscured because of Snowden. He decided to give Alexander a chance to hype the success of NSA in the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. But Alexander replied, “If I were to tell you something, there is the possibility that divulging that information could limit our ability to cauterize threats in the future.” He did, however, use the opportunity celebrate the work done in response to the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama and the kidnapping in Somalia of Jessica Buchanan, an American doctor, and Poul Thisted, a Danish citizen. [Note: Alexander was incorrect. Buchanan was a humanitarian aide worker.]
Alexander recommends the US welcome the “increased militarization” of Japan “if China continues to act aggressively.”
Joye encourages Alexander to explain what keeps him awake in bed at night:
…Assume one country believes they can hit your nation with a cyber-attack, but that it won’t lead to physical conflict. But in launching that cyber-attack, suppose they actually knock down your stock exchange or temporarily disable your banking system, which is a very real possibility these days. Your government then feels it has to reciprocate. And we have an unpredictable chain-reaction that could lead to outright war…
Alexander defends US militarization of cyberspace, saying, “Leaders want to ‘dominate’ cyberspace in any encounters with adversaries. If we don’t, the adversaries may get the upper hand. If they get an upper hand in the first phase of the conflict, that likely means the second and third phases of conflict are going to go badly for us. If you lose the recon battle, you risk losing the war. If you now lose the cyber battle, you could lose the war.”
He declines to directly address the “cyber arms race” among nations (probably because the NSA is as culpable as anyone for intensifying this race).
Alexander warns against industrial espionage against American companies without addressing how the NSA has engaged in industrial espionage as well. He offers this proposal for securing the information of businesses:
…When you look at the investments government has made in protecting its most valuable information assets, I think we are obliged to help the private sector do the same thing. We’ve got to provide that same opportunity for those citizens who would like to capitalise on the level of security we have developed in government—to allow them to “opt-in” inside our cyber defenses.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Bill Lynn and I have talked about creating a “secure zone”—a place where individuals and private companies could opt-in to secure their data with the best protections government possesses. As we move forward these are the kinds of ideas that we—your country, mine and others—are going to have to carefully consider…
Joye provides Alexander the opportunity to explain his view that the “foreign security services” in Europe, Russia and China engage in greater mass surveillance than the NSA, FBI and CIA in the United States. Alexander describes the massive surveillance system, SORM, and how it can be abused for “domestic political purposes.” He then makes the claim that the only reason NSA accesses “FISA metadata” is to “protect” America from “terrorist attacks.”
“We cannot use it for domestic political purposes or any of the many other internal reasons Russia does,” Alexander suggests.
This is blatantly false. President Barack Obama said in his speech in January, US intelligence uses bulk collection for, “Counterintelligence, counterterrorism, counter-proliferation, cybersecurity, force protection for our troops and our allies, and combating transnational crime, including sanctions evasion.”
Alexander is also artfully distracting attention away from the vastness of the dragnet by focusing on accessing of the data instead of collection.
It is known, because of Snowden, that the NSA operated a PRISM program giving it direct access to users’ data from tech companies like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Skype and Yahoo. The NSA mapped Americans’ social connections, searched the contents of emails and text messages to and from the country, deployed analysts and tried to recruit informants in online games like World of Warcraft, and over a decade collected the metadata of Americans’ emails. The NSA has also operated a program collecting cellphone location data from around the world that collects Americans’ data, which the NSA contends is not protected by the Fourth Amendment.
The agency has a hoarding complex. It also is not indisputable that surveillance has not been abused for political purposes. The Intercept reported on evidence of covert surveillance against WikiLeaks and its supporters. Does that strike anyone as non-political surveillance activity?
So, when Alexander says, “Any objective analysis shows that Americans’ privacy rights are protected much more than you find in most other countries, and certainly our civil liberties are vastly superior to what you find in China and Russia,” that does not make American Big Brother more acceptable.
Later in the interview, he adds, “To ask NSA not to look for weaknesses in the technology that we use, and to not seek to break the codes our adversaries employ to encrypt their messages is, I think, misguided. I would love to have all the terrorists just use that one little sandbox over there so that we could focus on them. But they don’t.” All of which will not give technology companies any peace of mind.
It is toward the end of the interview when Joye finally dives into the issue of Snowden. Alexander rehashes the typical He-Could-Have-Gone-Through-Proper-Channels talking points officials recite, which are disingenuous, misleading and, at this point, rather nauseating. (For a complete deconstruction of that, see here.)
Alexander complains about criticism from “global media” as a result of coverage of documents from Snowden.
…I think the biggest mistake global media have made is projecting the incorrect perception that NSA is collecting the content of all Americans’ phone calls and emails, and reading this material, when we are doing neither of these things.
The reality is that under the FISA laws, NSA must have a finding of probable cause and a warrant to target a specific American’s communications for collection…
That is not true. The NSA merely has to convince the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that a person may be operating as an “agent of a foreign power” and then they can begin to target that American. This person could be from a foreign government, a “faction” in a foreign nation, a political organization in a foreign nation, a political organization or business controlled by a foreign government, someone who intelligence believes to be engaged in clandestine activity, which could mean a leaker, etc.
There doesn’t have to be probable cause that a crime is, has been or will be committed. Anyone who is suspicious enough becomes a target.
Alexander promotes an analysis by Lawfare of Snowden’s disclosures (where one of his favorite writers, Benjamin Wittes, works). The argument is that all this exposes America’s “foundational intelligence system” to attacks. (If that is the case, why isn’t Alexander condemning Lawfare for listing out specifics and putting together a one-stop shop of targets and vulnerabilities the terrorists could potentially go after? At least be consistent. If the Guardian or The Washington Post did this, Alexander would be irate.)
To prevent another “Snowden-like event,” Alexander explains, “We came up with 42 different improvements to our systems that we’re sharing not only domestically but also with our allies. So your folks at the Australian Signals Directorate have the same information about what we’re doing.” (Yeah, I know. “Your folks.” It’s a chummy interview.)
The former NSA director states, “I think [Snowden] is now being manipulated by Russian intelligence. I just don’t know when that exactly started or how deep it runs. But that’s my speculation as an intelligence professional.”
Maybe it is pure speculation lacking any factual basis and very similar to what Representative Mike Rogers has suggested previously but it is a good enough for Reuters and The Daily Beast to promote widely through headlines.
Finally, he gives his opinion on the Pulitzer Prize being awarded to The Guardian and Washington Post.
“I’m greatly disappointed that we have rewarded those who have put so many lives at risk. I think that’s the best way to say that.”
It outdoes former CBS correspondent John Miller’s infomercial for NSA immensely. But that is because online news is not constrained by time like the “60 Minutes” program.
There was no limit placed on Joye’s opportunity to bond with the former NSA chief. And, if Alexander wants to push his propaganda out into the world again, he’ll know who to call.