Keith Alexander’s Pizza Problem

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Shane Harris has a great piece of a bunch of people hanging Keith Alexander out to dry. It shows how Alexander has always grabbed for more data — at times not considering the legal basis for doing so — for ambitious, half-finished products that don’t yield results.

I’m particularly interested in this one:

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.”

As I noted last month, the NSA’s primary order for the Section 215 program allows for technical personnel to access the data, in unaudited form, before the analysts get to it. They do so to identify “high volume identifiers” (and other “unwanted BR metadata”). As I said, I suspect they’re stripping the dataset of numbers that would otherwise distort contact chaining.

I suspect a lot of what these technical personnel are doing is stripping numbers — probably things like telemarketer numbers — that would otherwise distort the contact chaining. Unless terrorists’ American friends put themselves on the Do Not Call List, then telemarketers might connect them to every other American not on the list, thereby suggesting a bunch of harassed grannies in Dubuque are 2 degrees from Osama bin Laden.

I used telemarketers, but Alexander himself has used the example of the pizza joint in testimony.

In other words, it appears Alexander learned from his mistake at INSCOM that pizza joints do not actually represent a meaningful connection. His use of the example seems to suggest that NSA now strips pizza joints from their dataset.

But what if terrorists’ ties to a pizza joint are the most meaningful ones?

One of the defenses NSA offered in Harris’ piece is that Alexander only does all this to prevent another terrorist attack.

“He is well aware that he will be criticized if there’s another attack,” the staffer says. “He has said many times, ‘My job is to protect the American people. And I have to be perfect.'”

This staffer seems to forget that there was another attack — on Boston, in April. And while I actually do think they might not have been able to prevent the attack, I also note that no one has criticized Alexander for missing the multiple suspicious calls and searches that Tamerlan Tsarnaev or his mother conducted online (though I all but guarantee you that Alexander secretly made a bid to collect more domestic data in response anyway).

But I also suspect there may be one gaping hole in the NSA’s data relating to the Tsarnaevs: any calls and connections through Gerry’s Italian Kitchen.

Gerry’s was, if you recall, the pizza joint involved in the 2011 murder in Waltham: the three men were killed sometime between ordering a pizza and its delivery 45 minutes later. I’ve been told both Tsarnaevs had delivered pizza for that restaurant before then and Tamerlan may still have been.

But Gerry’s is also where the brothers disposed of some of their explosives the night of the manhunt, and it may well have been what brought them to Watertown.

So a connection to the brothers going back years when they worked there, a connection to the 2011 murder, and a connection (however tangential) to the manhunt. Yet (I’m guessing here) any ties the brothers had through that pizza joint would not show up in the dragnet collected precisely for that purpose, because such data is purged because normally pizza joints don’t reflect a meaningful relationship.

Sometimes a pizza joint is just a pizza joint. But sometimes (particularly for immigrants who might work at the transient jobs offered there), it can be a meaningful tie.

But when collecting a dragnet, it’s not clear you can distinguish between the two and still make it meaningful. That is, precisely because this was a dragnet, rather than a collection of the brothers’ calls, this pizza connection may have been hidden entirely in the data.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

14 replies
  1. Rayne says:

    All that metadata the NSA needs so desperately is useless if they don’t use it appropriately, effectively.

    Begs the question to what end they are really gathering metadata.

  2. Saul Tannenbaum says:

    The connection between the Waltham murders and the Tsarnaevs was much tighter than a pizza place, as one of the victims was said to be Tamerlan’s best friend.

    But the signal to noise problem is very real. To my knowledge, I never met the Tsarnaevs, even though they lived a mile or so from me, but I know people who met one or the other, or whose kids went to school with them.

    Take a bunch of Saudi men, drop them around the US and, given funding and ties back to Al Qaeda, you probably have a detectable social graph.
    Take a small town – and Cambridge is very much like a small town – and everybody is interconnected two or three hops away, even if they’d never heard of Gerry’s Pizza.

  3. Yastreblyansky says:

    I don’t believe there’s any way of profiling non–pizza joints in order to avoid this problem and thus missing Gerry’s. Certainly not through metadata alone. However the pizza joint’s network pattern will tend to rule it out: very large number of callers who do not interact at all with one another. Your target’s pizza connection may be fairly dense but is most likely not in the network proper.

  4. lefty665 says:

    Wasn’t one of the FBI’s complaints early on after 9/11 that they were getting sent on huge numbers of investigations of pizza joints? Think Alexander was the “mastermind” behind that boondoggle?

    Alexander needs to go, for many reasons, and has for a long time. As Saul noted the other day, if for no other reason than that Snowden happened on his watch. You can delegate authority, but not responsibility.

  5. orionATL says:

    why are we talking pizza joints when everybody (in ny city) knows that it’s the falafel joints where terrorists hang out?

  6. P J Evans says:

    There used to be a pizza place a few miles from me that was bought by Afghans, but they kept the pizza side going. It’s been gone for a couple of years – I’d wanted to try their non-pizza stuff, which was supposed to be very good.

    Wouldn’t that put a kink in the NSA’s spying?

  7. What Constitution? says:

    The truly frightening realization that, well, they might hate us for our pizza bodes ill for democracy, no doubt. If that is so, then what about apple pie? I do hope there’s at least a footnote in the upcoming Clapper & Co. Report which addresses the extent to which communications associated with snack food distribution and consumption must be tracked to Keep ‘Murikans Safe.

  8. Greg Bean (@GregLBean) says:

    Every now and then I like to throw in the argument that we’re discussing symptoms.

    If I were to wander around my neighborhood telling everyone how they had to behave, enforcing that with the odd shooting, stealing from their gardens and garages and behaving like a complete asshole in many other ways, and I suddenly found that my neighbors were retaliating, should I:

    A/ monitor them to find out who is coming after me next, and spend big on fine tuning that monitoring, or

    B/ stop the causal behavior, apologize, return their property, make recompense for the damage I’ve done and agree not to do so in future?

    To me, even discussing option A seems a waste of time.

    On the basis that option B was correctly chosen, then, what might keep me from proceeding with the actions outlined in that option:

    A/ because I believe my neighbors are animals that I can treat any way I like,

    B/ I do not accept responsibility and believe the retaliation is actually unprovoked aggression,

    C/ My family members, let’s call them CORP & MIC, that are causing all the problems are also threatening the rest of the family,

    D/ The family enjoys exceptional prosperity from CORP & MIC’s deviant behavior,

    E/ All of the above.

    I’ll be interested in how much push back I get on this. In the past when I’ve made similar suggestions, that we’re discussing symptoms, I have received some pretty strong rebukes.

    I know addressing the cause is much harder but trying to fine tune symptom tracking is not going to end the problem.

    Sadly, it seems this correcting the cause is not likely to occur, and as a result the neighbors are building BRICS walls around my problem family and will watch as it fades into insignificance.

  9. HappyBlogFriendz says:

    The Foreign Policy article was a great piece of reporting and exactly what we need to see more of. Too many people have the mistaken belief that the NSA and other government agencies are run fairly and efficiently, which isn’t the case. The more light you shine on the actual humans involved, the more people realize that the system is ripe for abuse.

  10. Stephen says:

    One of the interesting revelations in that Foreign Policy article was the news that Alexander had his equivalent of Cheney’s David Addington: James Heath. By that I mean that, like Addington, Heath seems to have been a brainy backroom guy who avoided the limelight while at the same time functioning as his boss’s ideas guy who helped push his boss up to and beyond the bounds of legality, and thereby arguably shares at least a some responsibility for some of the excesses their respective bosses wound up getting into.

    In that context I note that U.S. News & World Report once described Addington as “the most powerful man you’ve never heard of”. Judge from Harris’s article, that same line could equally be applied to Heath.

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