Wherein Alexander the Great Conquers the World

“Collect it all,” an anonymous source describes General Keith Alexander’s approach to data, in a bizarre WaPo profile this morning.

The article includes several anonymous condemnations of Alexander the Great’s approach.

  • “But even his defenders say Alexander’s aggressiveness has sometimes taken him to the outer edge of his legal authority.”
  • “Some in Congress complain that Alexander’s NSA is sometimes slow to inform the oversight committees of problems, particularly when the agency’s eavesdroppers inadvertently pick up communications that fall outside the NSA’s legal mandates.”
  • “Even close allies have fretted about the concentration of so much responsibility — not to mention influence — in a single individual.”

It also provides details of why he is so dangerous.

  • “Alexander has argued for covert action authority, which is traditionally the domain of the CIA, individuals familiar with the matter say.”
  • “He has been credited as a key supporter of the development of Stuxnet, the computer worm that infected Iran’s main uranium enrichment facility in 2009 and 2010 and is the most aggressive known use to date of offensive cyberweaponry.”
  • “‘He is the only man in the land that can promote a problem by virtue of his intelligence hat and then promote a solution by virtue of his military hat,’ said one former Pentagon official,”
  • Private companies should give the government access to their networks so it could screen out the harmful software. The NSA chief was offering to serve as an all-knowing virus-protection service, but at the cost, industry officials felt, of an unprecedented intrusion into the financial institutions’ databases.”

But the entire article — which focuses far more closely on Alexander the Great’s cybersecurity and cyberwar activities than terrorism — pretends to be about terrorism.

For NSA chief, terrorist threat drives passion to ‘collect it all,’ observers say

In late 2005, as Iraqi roadside bombings were nearing an all-time peak, the National Security Agency’s newly appointed chief began pitching a radical plan for halting the attacks that then were killing or wounding a dozen Americans a day.

At the time, more than 100 teams of U.S. analysts were scouring Iraq for snippets of electronic data that might lead to the bomb-makers and their hidden factories. But the NSA director, Gen. Keith B. Alexander, wanted more than mere snippets. He wanted everything: Every Iraqi text message, phone call and e-mail that could be vacuumed up by the agency’s powerful computers.

“Rather than look for a single needle in the haystack, his approach was, ‘Let’s collect the whole haystack,’ ” said one former senior U.S. intelligence official who tracked the plan’s implementation. “Collect it all, tag it, store it. . . . And whatever it is you want, you go searching for it.”

The unprecedented data collection plan, dubbed Real Time Regional Gateway, would play a role in breaking up Iraqi insurgent networks and significantly reducing the monthly death toll from improvised explosive devices by late 2008. It also encapsulated Alexander’s controversial approach to safeguarding Americans from what he sees as a host of imminent threats, from terrorism to devastating cyberattacks.

This approach (which appears to be sheer regurgitation on the part of one of WaPo’s writers, perhaps not surprising given Joby Warrick’s contributions) replicates both David Petraeus’ false claims about the surge winning the war in Iraq (rather than bribes to delay the violence that is exploding again) and the very legal ploy I’ve described is built into FISA programs.

That is, every time NSA proposes some vast new expansion of its collection, it does so by pointing to the Terror Terror Terror threat (whether or not that’s the chief threat at hand). People within National Counterterrorism Center troll their files to build up the threat as urgently as possible, including using tortured evidence. And then they pull that together into a justification that probably looks just like the first paragraphs of this article as self-justification.

And remember, Alexander the Great was resuming comprehensive collection on Iraq after Jack Goldsmith had limited it to terrorists in 2004 (presumably after he and others discovered comprehensive collection includes eavesdropping on calls from servicemen calling home).

And by using the Terror Terror Terror threat, Alexander the Great can invoke the certainty of death to describe proposals that include camping on the most private bank websites to hunt for malware (to say nothing of offensively attacking other states).

“Everyone also understands,” he said, “that if we give up a capability that is critical to the defense of this nation, people will die.”

Once you get beyond the initial several paragraphs of propaganda, the story makes clear that a number of people — and not just Jeff Merkley, who is one of the named critics — are beginning to realize this is too much.

But by the time you get there, Alexander the Great has conquered the world.

“Collect it all.”

17 replies
  1. Dredd says:

    He is the only man in the land that can promote a problem by virtue of his intelligence hat and then promote a solution by virtue of his military hat,’ said one former Pentagon official” …

    Let’s not kid ourselves, there aren’t two hats, there is one military helmet.

    For NSA chief, terrorist threat drives passion to ‘collect it all,’ observers say” …

    The observer we should pay attention to is “The Father of the Constitution“, who foretold:

    If Tyranny and Oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.” – James Madison

  2. GulfCoastPirate says:

    Is this an episode of ‘The Twilight Zone’ or real life? This guy is fucking nuts. How did we get to this place at this point in time?

  3. lefty665 says:

    By domestically replicating the collections implemented in Iraq, NSA is treating all of us the same as enemies we have declared war against.

    Senator Church, along with most in that generation of NSAers, observed that turning NSA’s tools inward enabled tyranny.

    We fought a revolution, in part, over British general warrants.

  4. peasantparty says:

    Love, love, love the connection to Alexander the Great!

    Conquer it All/Collect it All. Excellent, EW.

    Can we now call him the Ultimate Leader of the Peeping Toms? How about the Peepers instead of the NSA? We have to change the vernacular for people. NSA is too technical for people that don’t watch and read political news all day. They sure as hell can understand Peeping Tom invasions!

  5. orionATL says:

    i’ll repeat: the nsa needs to be broken apart, as with any other monopoly in this society.

    if we were not cursed with a weak and vascillating president that would already have been done.

    break the nsa into three parts:

    – return to the department of defense a social entity to collect information needed by the military, limited to non-americans and to non-american territory.

    – establish a second social entity, semi-private, highly regulated and overseen, to protect and support internet access, make it available to all americans, and protect it from private, criminal, or government disruptions, including spying.

    – establish a third social entity, a civilian-only government department, to engage in whatever electronic spying is deemed genuinely necessary to a reasonably safe, secure life for americans (the term “national security” being banned from use in the enabling act). this entirely non-military organization to have extremely limited, carefully defined interactions with the military or paramilitary

    and carefully defined interactions with local and national (fbi) police and with the department of justice.

    the premise upon which this rationalization of electronic spying would be based is that liberty from inevitable u.s. government tyranny is of greater importance to citizen wellbeing and to the american model of governing than would be the “security” gained from social institutions which purport to be able to protect us as individuals and our essential private institutions from malevolence and criminality.

  6. der says:

    What the Overseers need to ask is did “collect it all” work in Iraq? Of course it did if Alexander the Great uses Cheney’s 1% rule. The odds of dying at the hands of a terrorist vs? Your tax dollars at work. Christ.

    Of course I understand the answer to my question would have to be given in secret in a secret room. So trust us.

  7. RexFlex says:

    The hardest obstacle to overcome will be getting past what will happen to all of these loyal foot soldiers in the war on terror if the NSA was to be whittled down to a manageable size. There are sooo many mid 50s VPs that are milking this income revenue stream to the end and they will fight tooth and nail to maintain their little shadowed illegal gravy trains from being exposed as beyond wasteful and eligible for elimination.The problem is really with the Senate oversight committee, ultimate oxymoron,they will say they didn’t have enough info to make proper decisions but now that the system is built they can’t just take away all of these jobs that the cyber-ex military stooges bought into. Talk about entitlement programs.

  8. P J Evans says:

    “Everyone also understands,” he said, “that if we give up a capability that is critical to the defense of this nation, people will die.”

    And they’ll die if we don’t give it up. He seems to have forgotten that his primary oath is to protect the Constitution, not to obey the president or protect the country.

  9. joanneleon says:

    It was a good article. I was glad they focused on Alexander. But that one major flaw was so glaring (pretending the ramping up of intel was about terrorism) that you are the third person I’ve seen that had the same reaction as I did.

    The ramp up of the military and wars was supposed to be about terrorism too. And it’s clear now that it wasn’t. So I think it’s fair to draw that parallel. If the wars simply used terrorism as a justification, the big intel grab did too. But then the question is, what was the big intel grab really about? Again, I think it’s fair to say it’s also about imperialism but I think it’s a lot more than that, when you figure in the domestic surveillance.

  10. C says:

    This marks a rather interesting shift however. At first the NSA pointed to Zazi and the Mumbai Bombers to justify things. Then they claimed 50 plots “around the world” were disrupted by these programs. Now for the first time they are claiming success at saving U.S. Servicemembers withouyt any evidence presented to support that. That is interesting, and a bit desperate.

    It also requires us to believe that the Iraqi insurgents did all of their coordination over electronic communications, perhaps posing bomb locations to facebook, and that they dod so early enough for the bombs to be avoided. Is that even a legitimate assumption given that we are talking about groups that were, in part, protesting the lack of electricity. In areas like Sadr City they didn’t have power or water for large spans of time. Where would they find the time to chat about bombs electronically and over what equipment.

    More frigtening, however, is the fact that this article implcitily uses a wartime power directed against a foreign enemy to claim that we should turn the same powers against ourselves. AND it indicates that that argument works in Washington.

  11. orionATL says:

    @Bill Michtom:

    a fair question.

    i asked myself the same question after i had posted.

    short answer, commonplace rhetoric on my part.

    longer answer:

    obama has NO political power in the american political system other than as a modestly popular stand-in authoritarian president.

    he has no clout in congress; he is feared by none there. he is served by dem leaders who know he is a figurehead, but who are party folk first.

    he possess no actionable affection from the citizenry, only tolerance – he hasn’t pissed any group off because he hasn’t done much. he hasn’t really even pissed republicans off that much, given that they fully intended intended from tbe beginning to oppose anything he proposed.

    as for “vacillation”, i wish i had not written that, though i can concoct a laborious explanation.

    the vacillation obama expresses is formalistic, i.e., contrived.

    today we learned that ag holder takes the zimmerman/martin controversy seriously and will “look into it”. lime hell he will!

    we learned recently that obama values “transparency” and “rule of law” and “checks and balances” with respect to the nsa spying scandal. like hell he does!

    he values no such things and will not challenge either nsa or cia on any serious matter.

    “the cia get what they want”;

    “the nsa get what they want”;

    both quotes attributed to the president.

    the vacillation obama exhibits is between publicly expressed sympathy with constitutional tradition, and

    ruthless obama authoritarian behavior (manning, al-awlaki, snowden) that is as antithetical to the american model of governing as is possible.

    if we ever have a true manchurian candidate, historians will of needs observe (if allowed to) that he/she followed the earlier obama admin model closely.

    finally, the central vacillation is between knowing without doubt that the war machinery and attendant paramilitary, electronic spying, and doj domestic legal authoritarianism is unnecessary and unconstitutional,

    but still supporting it because politics (as obama/advisors view it) demands it be done to retain power and relevancy.

    obama has neither power or relevancy at this point in his presidency;

    he doesn’t have either because he never went out and earned either.

    that’s the failing of a boardroom charmer as a president.

  12. What Constitution? says:

    “I just wrap my arms around the whole backfield and peel ’em one by one until I get to the ball carrier. Him I keep.”
    Big Daddy Lipscomb, former NFL defensive tackle on his tackling technique.

    Or the genesis of Alexander’s philosophy of data collection. Except Alexander wants to wrap up the backfield, the line, his own team, the sidelines and the stands, just in case somebody might have the ball. Football has rules that wouldn’t permit that, as well as common sense. Do we?

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