Keith Alexander: The One General Obama Didn’t Fire

Obama has developed a reputation for firing Generals (so much so the wingnuts have developed some conspiracy theories about it).

Most famously, of course, he fired Stanley McChrystal for insubordination. He ousted CENTCOM Commander James Mattis early because of dissent on Iran policy (what on retrospect, with the distance and this AP report, might have been opposition to the back channel discussions that led to this weekend’s interim nuclear deal). A slew of Generals have been fired for offenses including drinking, fucking (including sexual abuse), swearing, and cheating at poker, as well as abusing their positions (Hamm, Gaouette, Baker, Roberts, Sinclair, Giardina, CarryHuntoon). Obama accepted then CIA Director David Petraeus’s resignation, ostensibly for fucking, too, but even before that kept refusing Petraeus the promotions he thought he deserved. Generals Gurganus and Sturdevant got fired for not sufficiently defending a big base in Afghanistan.

It’s that background that makes the premise of this WSJ piece on NSA so unconvincing. It presents the fact that General Keith Alexander offered — but Obama did not accept — his resignation as proof of how significantly the Snowden leaks have affected NSA.

Shortly after former government contractor Edward Snowden revealed himself in June as the source of leaked National Security Agency documents, the agency’s director, Gen. Keith Alexander, offered to resign, according to a senior U.S. official.

The offer, which hasn’t previously been reported, was declined by the Obama administration. But it shows the degree to which Mr. Snowden’s revelations have shaken the NSA’s foundations—unlike any event in its six-decade history, including the blowback against domestic spying in the 1970s.

[snip]

When the leaks began, some top administration officials found their confidence in Gen. Alexander shaken because he presided over a grave security lapse, a former senior defense official said. But the officials also didn’t think his resignation would solve the security problem and were concerned that letting him leave would wrongly hand Mr. Snowden a win, the former defense official said.

Even before Edward Snowden started working for the NSA via Booz, Alexander had presided over — by his own provably exaggerated admission — the plunder of America via cybertheft.

Then, on top of that purportedly catastrophic failure, Snowden served to demonstrate how easy it was to walk away with details on some of NSA’s most sensitive ops.

And yet the guy who left the entire US Internet as well as NSA’s codebreaking exposed — as compared to a single base in Afghanistan — did not get fired for his failures.

Because that might wrongly hand Snowden a win, apparently.

That’s the real tell. The article provides new details on an effort to weigh the value of wiretapping elite targets. But the rest of the article quotes hawks like Dutch Ruppersberger and Mike Rogers complaining about the risk of big new controls that might end the Golden Age of SIGINT while — again — focusing almost exclusively on the wiretapping of elites (the article includes one paragraph predicting a compromise on the dragnet programs, not noting, of course, how much of the dragnet has already moved overseas).

Broad new controls, though, run the risk of overcorrecting, leaving the agency unable to respond to a future crisis, critics of the expected changes warn.

[snip]

Another change under consideration is placing a civilian in charge of the NSA for the first time after Gen. Alexander leaves next spring, as he has been planning to do. Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter is advocating internally for the change, according to current and former officials. Mr. Carter declined to comment.

“We’re getting clobbered, and we want a better story to tell than: ‘It’s under review, and everybody does it,’ ” the senior administration official said, speaking of the U.S. belief that other governments routinely electronic eavesdrop on foreign leaders.

There’s one more odd part of this story. It claims that after 9/11, the NSA was pilloried for its lapses leading up to the attack.

After the 2001 terrorist attacks, the NSA was pilloried for missing clues of the plot. It reinvented itself as a terrorist-hunting machine, channeling its computing power to zero in on suspects any time they communicated.

That’s not what happened. The National Security establishment has repeatedly, falsely portrayed NSA’s failure to realize Khalid al-Mihdhar was calling an Al Qaeda line in Yemen and CIA’s failure to share information about Mihdhar’s travel. And none of the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations address NSA (by the time of the report, the “wall” between intelligence and FBI, which otherwise would have been a recommendation, had been down for almost 3 years). But beyond that, no one has scrutinized NSA’s collections (in part because they include damning intercepts implicating the Saudis).

Moreover, the claim that this dragnet exists solely to “zero in on suspects any time they communicated” ignores the shift from terrorism to cybersecurity.

In short, while WSJ’s sources seem to be claiming catastrophe, the story they’re telling is business as usual.

Obama has fired Generals for failure to protect a single base, not to mention cheating at poker. He seems intent on keeping Alexander — at least to get through this scandal — precisely because he’s so good at cheating at (metaphorical) poker.

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.

5 replies
  1. TarheelDem says:

    Obama does not fire generals. Their behavior is publicized in such a way that the political momentum for them to retire becomes palpable. The the President asks them to step aside. The fact that the GOP has noticed some of their great starred hopes going missing complicates the timing of when to let go of Alexander. And even more so of Brennan and Clapper. Especially if the President is keeping his friends close and his enemies closer.

    In my opinion, the word “yet” needs to be added to the title. And the drip, drip, drip about NSA continues. So the critical players in this are the members of Congress, especially the Democratic members of Congress. And might they have to be a bit careful about what they say publicly? Russ Tice thinks so.

  2. Frank33 says:

    It is not just corrupt Generals. We have an epidemic of corrupt military leaders, including Admirals. Two Spymaster Admirals, who were part of a corrupt NCIS network have not been fired. They helped give classified information to Fat Leonard. Will they be punished as was Private Manning? of course not.

    In a statement Friday night, the Navy said that the security clearances and access to classified material of Vice Adm. Ted Branch, the director of Naval Intelligence, and Rear Adm. Bruce Loveless, the director of Intelligence Operations, had been revoked and both had been placed on leave.

    And NCIS, America’s most popular tee vee show! And NCIS is as corrupt as General Petraeus and General Allen. The rotting American Empire is beginning to stink.

    Two Navy commanders and a senior NCIS agent have already been arrested under charges filed by the U.S. Attorney’s office in San Diego in connection with the case, and a Navy captain was relieved of his command for his alleged involvement

    The Secret Government will protect their own.

    There are 16 “civilian” USA spy organizations, controlled by Generals and Admirals and Colonels. There are comparable military spy organizations controlled by other Generals and Admirals. The USA is a Military Dictatorship where the government spies 24/7 against the American people for the benefit of the One Percent.

    The Spymaster Generals and Admirals fire Presidents, not the other way around. It is a sacred priesthood of warmonger murderers and torturers.

  3. C says:

    Simply put I think that Obama still needs Alexander or thinks that he does. Most of the “fired” generals were replaceable and certainly provided little unique value to Obama. It is also probably about time that we fired some of them. Generals are supposed to answer for what happens in their command yet noone was fired for Abu Ghraib, the command officers responsible for the Afghan Kill team were not even demoted but just “taken off the fast track to promotion”.

    Alexander has overseen a radical expansion of his authority and it is likely noone but him really knows what is going on. For better or worse (mostly worse) I suspect that Obama feels uncomfortable cutting him out without a replacement. This makes him unique and therefore far more resistant to firing than a bad poker player who fucks the wrong subordinate.

  4. lefty665 says:

    Gen. Keith may not have been “fired”, but we can thank Snowden that he did not get a third tour as DIRNSA. He’s gone in a few months. Potato, potato, fired, rotated. It all translates to “Free of Keith at last”.

    With each revelation Gen. Keith is revealed to have been the most aggressive, persistent and effective advocate for expanding NSA’s collection to everything all the time. While he was DIRNSA even Hayden busted Keith’s chops for overstepping.

    Who replaces him and how deep the housecleaning goes, if at all, is what to look for.

  5. yellowsnapdragon says:

    Are we certain that the purging of generals isn’t related the shift in policy away from SA/Israel and toward Iran?

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