Under Keith Alexander’s Guard, America Can Be Plundered Like a Colony

Admittedly, Keith Alexander made things very easy on himself in this article on “Defending America in Cyberspace” by not mentioning the way DOD (or our ally, Israel) let StuxNet go free, not only exposing the attack on Iran, but also providing a map and code that others can use on us.

That reckless mistake and its potential consequences remains unmentioned, however, in the piece in which Alexander claims that his team has found and is implementing the magic formula for defending the country in cyberspace.

We have learned through two decades of trial and error that operationalizing our cyberdefenses by linking them to intelligence and information-assurance capabilities is not only the best but also the only viable response to growing threats.

We know how to defend the country, Alexander says. It involves creating security holes, then using them to find out who will attack us, all while living on the network and watching what private citizens are also doing.

But then Alexander utterly contradicts the claim that his team has found the successful formula by describing the sheer scale of successful attacks against the US, suggesting it rivals the plunder of the Mongols and the colonies (though curiously, not slavery).

Three times over the previous millennium, military revolutions allowed forces to conquer huge territories and forcibly transfer riches from losers to winners (namely, in the Mongol conquests of China, Russia and Baghdad; the Spanish conquests of the Americas; and the European empires in the nineteenth century). Remote cyberexploitation now facilitates the systematic pillaging of a rival state without military conquest and the ruin of the losing power. We have seen a staggering list of intrusions into major corporations in our communications, financial, information-technology, defense and natural-resource sectors. The intellectual property exfiltrated to date can be counted in the tens to hundreds of thousands of terabytes. We are witnessing another great shift of wealth by means of cybertheft, and this blunts our technological and innovative edge. Yet we can neither prevent major attacks nor stop wholesale theft of intellectual capital because we rely on architecture built for availability, functionality and ease of use—with security bolted on as an afterthought.

This repeats a claim he and others have made repeatedly, though after having been proven wrong about past claims about the scale of financial wealth transfer, he seems to have shifted to measuring the plunder that has occurred on his watch in terabytes, not dollars. Our country — which he has served in a key defense role for 8 years — has been plundered like a colony (I don’t buy this, mind you — I find the analogy downright offensive. But it is the argument he’s making).

In much of the rest of his paper, Alexander explains his future plans, which we should follow, he tells us, because he has been so successful that our country has been plundered like a colony.

I wonder. Might the most sane response to this paper be to, at a minimum, question what success looks like? At a minimum, might we discuss publicly some alternatives? And if being plundered like a colony is not our goal, perhaps we should consider whether what Alexander presents as the “only viable response” really is?

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.

22 replies
  1. Ryan says:

    I wonder. Might the most sane response be to, at a minimum, accept Alexander’s immediate resignation for incompetence and dishonesty.

  2. PeasantParty says:

    For TWO DECADES! Trial and Error. We know how and we are the BEST!

    Says the commander of the Starship Enterprise remake.

    He does not mention the amount of debt and deficit spending was done to achieve those two decades/20 years of trial and error, nor evidence that NSA is the best at anything other than collection.

    Any sane person would ask him WHY. Why does he think our tax dollars should be spent to protect Private Corporations from cyber crime? Remind you, the very same Private Person Corporations that are always yammering for tax breaks, subsidies, and loopholes. Any sane person would ask him why the entire world dragnet when the entire world is not a terror instigator.

    Any sane person would say, “Beam him up, Scottie”!

  3. Saul Tannenbaum says:

    I need to share with a sympathetic audience an experience I had about which I need to be a bit vague.

    A neighbor of mine recently took on a senior technical role in an organization that receives a lot of DOD funding, much of it now about cybersecurity. It’s the sort of job that requires a security clearance. He’s a nice guy and a good neighbor.

    We had dinner together recently and made the mistake of bringing up cybersecurity.

    Actual security is impossible, he said. Companies were being robbed blind, our infrastructure is vulnerable. You can’t secure computers anymore because it’s too hard. That’s why the government needs to monitor all internet traffic to do something about it.

    It’s really hard to have an intelligent conversation with someone you respect when what you’re thinking is: “Wow, the cybersecurity zombies have eaten his brain!”. It’s also hard when you hear a lot of “if you knew what I knew…”.

    I don’t actually doubt that cyber spies have, for example, stolen a good chunk of Boeing’s intellectual property. But like piling the bags of heroin up in front of a press conference and inflating its street value, there’s a whole lot more to “exfiltrating the wealth” associated with advanced aerospace engineering than stealing the plans. And, you know, that’s Boeing’s problem, not mine, and certainly not a reason to monitor every byte of Internet traffic.

    Looking for sanity in this area is going to result in a long, fruitless search.

  4. orionATL says:

    @Saul Tannenbaum:

    nicely (and tactfully) said.

    when faced these days with government/privatecorp security assertions of deadly security issues on the horizon (“silhoutte of injun horsemen”),

    one must either to accept that government/corporate assertion (and with it the high likelihood of institutional folly, incompetence, waste of resources, official flailing while postures of competence)

    or make a very serious bet .

    that bet, wager, gamble is this:

    proposition 1 – i do not think it likely that a very bad security thing (cyber- or bombo-) is likely to happen frequently.

    proposition 2 – when and if it is about to occur, there is no strong evidence in our history that gives reason to believe the gov/corp social structures we have built (fbi, cia, nsa) will detect and prevent it.

    proposition 3 – the bad event, tragic and frightening as it may be, may be quite limited in scope and casualties,e.g., wtc and boston.

    proposition 4 – there may be individuals whose particular combination of intelligence and experience will do as good or better a job at detection and prevention, given flexibility and authority, than a government department chock full of technologically focused, rigidly arrayed spear-carriers.

    history should lend us some odds info, were it ever consulted.

    mostly,however, our political leaders together with the corporate beneficiaries of government security largess, would rather not take the bet that whatever happens will not be that bad and may be detectable by more conventional, less unconstitutional means.

  5. Greg Bean (@GregLBean) says:

    The more I read about Alexander the more I conclude he suffers from some severe delusional paranoia.

    While the US has plundered the riches of dozens of nations around the world the only people who have plundered the US are the US corporate elite. And they have done so in a fashion and to an extent that is astonishing.

    I suspect, except in Alexander’s head, there are no real threats to the US’s security from any foreign nation that could not be eliminated by simply withdrawing occupying troops from those nations. Has Vietnam ever shown any interest in retaliating against the US?

    Is there really a nation that would not gladly become equitable trading partners with the US?

    So, if Alexander wants to save the US from its current death spiral, I suggest he re-assign his entire band of spies and warriors to working for the Tax Department and turn all his surveillance on the wealthiest 1% and expose the people who have and are continuing to gut the US.

    “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”
    – Abraham Lincoln

  6. lefty665 says:

    “operationalizing” First step might be to put Gen. Keith in the dock for his assault on the english language.

    Genuine US boobus Americanus is notorious for being incapable of maintaining information security (think Betrayus and his girlfriend if nothing else). It is everywhere, and recidivism is high. Some of it is arrogance, some ignorance, some sloth. Some is corporate America’s unwillingness to spend the money and invest the resources to tighten up and keep tight.

    We can grant that we are being robbed blind and that our infrastructure is vulnerable. That is likely true. But we do not have to jump to the conclusion that the job is so technically tough that the only way to save us is to let Gen. Keith run it all.

    The shame is that he seems to care about the issues more than most people and organizations that should. As Saul observed, looking for sanity may be in vain, and beware the cybersecurity zombies.

  7. orionATL says:

    just as an aside, were we not having here a small debate a month or so ago about whether the nsa and emperor keith were conducting a p.r. campaign or not?

    as i recalll, joanneleon first raised the issue of a deliberate nsa public relations offensive.

    well, recently, no real surprise, we’ve had a worshipful nytimes article.

    now we have some other publication giving the emperor good (tree) wood to tell the world his story.

    is this not a public relations offensive?

    is this article not typical, selective, p.r. bullshit?

    only in america can a failed politico/bureaucrat spend government money to concoct a slick, evasive defense of his overreaching managerial screwup.

    or is this p.r. campaign being paid for by — oh, no — “friends of keith, inc.”

  8. ess emm says:

    Gee, besides slavery how could Alexander forget to mention the US military revolution (a.k.a. World War II) that allowed it to impose an American Empire on most of the world through institutions like World Bank, IMF, GATT and the dollar reserve currency—and extract other nations wealth, buy their assets at a major discount and force them to subsidize the US deficit?

    Intellectual property seems terribly selfish, it’s an institution that allows the mass of humanity to suffer just so corps like Monsanto or GlaxoSmithKline can make their ends.

  9. C says:

    @Greg Bean (@GregLBean): When you spend all day in a hyper-secure bubble talking to other bubble-dwellers about how much we stand on the edge of a cliff and are beset at all sides by enemies you come to believe it. When you constantly see yottobytes of possible threats and analyses of likely terrors you come to believe in them. Ultimately he sounds paranoid, he may be paranoid, but he is probably partially in earnest.

    I fear Coriolanus has grown from man to dragon.

  10. Nigel says:

    What is Angela Merkel’s problem ?
    Does she not know that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear ?

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-24647602
    Mrs Merkel says she wants US officials to clarify the extent of their surveillance in Germany.
    Her spokesman said the German leader “views such practices… as completely unacceptable”.

    The BBC’s Stephen Evans in Berlin says Germany’s morning papers echo a sense of outrage
    .
    A front-page commentary in Thursday’s Suddeutscher Zeitung – one of the country’s most respected papers – refers to the “biggest affront”.

    It says an attack on Angela Merkel’s mobile phone would be an attack on “her political heart”…

  11. Greg Bean (@GregLBean) says:

    @C: I’ve said it before and while I know that it is not financially possible for all, I’ll say it again. Most of the World’s problems could be solved if students in years 9-12 were required to spend 2-3 semesters (2-3 * 3 month stints) living overseas. Bigotry, racism, religious fanaticism, bubble-headed cyclops vision would be seen for what it is, ignorant exceptionalism.

    People are wonderful. In every one of the dozens of countries I’ve visited I’ve found fascinating wonderful people, and they all want to live in peace, raise their families, educate their children, ensure they have good food and health, and not once have I heard they want to wage war, on anyone.

    Alexander and his war mongers need to be retired. The US is NOT under threat expect from greedy corporate US elite.

    So, in answer to EW’s whimsical question, “question what success looks like? At a minimum, might we discuss publicly some alternatives?”, the answer is, reduce the US military by 95%, bring it all back onto mainland US, and put the money into funding kids travel education so they can see the world for what it is; a virtual paradise full of peaceful fun-loving people, not a monstrous war zone full of asshole Alexanders.

  12. spongebrain says:

    The truly modern American understands the necessity of one-way information flow for the benefit of all not necessarily disclosed allies who will use such information to modern Americans’ advantage out of good will and gratitude for having been provided such privileged information so freely. Modern Americans understand this is a win-win relationship for not only the receivers but also the recipients of the private information so discretely provided. Modern Americans understand granting such benefits to selective others will ultimately benefit everyone in either this millennium or the next.

  13. posaune says:

    @Greg Bean (@GregLBean):

    While the US has plundered the riches of dozens of nations around the world the only people who have plundered the US are the US corporate elite. And they have done so in a fashion and to an extent that is astonishing. – See more at: http://www.emptywheel.net/2013/10/23/under-keith-alexanders-guard-america-can-be-plundered-like-a-colony/#comments

    Yes, and they’ve done so with the full knowledge, authorization, and financial support of the US Govt.

  14. serf ceorl says:

    of course he’ll delusion. he built a Star Trek command center at NSA headquarters with tax payer money. it’s designed to look like the bridge of the enterprise. I’m not making this up! the dude is completely looney and if the US had any sense it would be monitoring his phones as it prepares the paperwork to lock him up in the looney bin!

  15. sufferinsuccotash, stupor mundi says:

    I’ve been under the impression that the US was supposed to be plundered like a colony. When you look at it from the perspective of the One-Percenters who’ve gained the most over the past 20+ years, the US lost its usefulness as a nation-state the day the USSR went out of business. So it make sense to strip out all that’s left from the World’s Only Superpower while pumping enough money into the political process to keep Americans confused and divided over what’s going on.

  16. emptywheel says:

    @Saul Tannenbaum: Thanks for sharing.

    I’d be satisfied if we considered Alexander (and Brennan, who oversaw cyber at Homeland Security Czar) failures, not successes, for what we’ve got so far.

    And now that we’re learning about the vulnerabilities NSA has launched (adding on top of StuxNet, which could be huge), I’d like an accounting of how much of the big theft comes from holes the NSA has left or put in place.

  17. emptywheel says:

    @ess emm: Yes. Agree entirely. And yes, what is happening is people are stealing our intellectual property which is increasingly the cornerstone of our empire.

  18. emptywheel says:

    @Bill Michtom: Thanks for mentioning it. I was considering that genocide–and similar genocides the world over–to be part of colonization. But it deserves specific mention.

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