Keith Alexander Declares Failure in War on Terror, as He Earlier Declared Failure in Cyberdefense

The New Yorker has a weird interview with Keith Alexander. The weirdness stems from Alexander’s wandering answers, which may, in turn, stem from the fact that the interview was not done by an NSA beat reporter. Such interviews seem to flummox NSA insiders.

But beyond all the rambling about Jeopardy and “free vowels” and disingenuous claims (and silences) about past terrorist events, ultimately Keith Alexander wants us to know that we are at greater risk as he steps down after more than 8 years of protecting us.

His logic for that is not that terrorists struck the Boston Marathon last year, in spite of NSA apparently collecting on them but not reviewing the collection — he doesn’t even mention that.

Rather, it’s that the number of terrorist attacks are going up globally. The US has thus far avoided such attacks (ignoring hate crimes and the Marathon attack), which he points to as proof our spying is working. But he also points to it as proof that we’re due.

There are people on one side saying that these N.S.A. programs could have stopped these plots. And then there are people who dispute that.

We know we didn’t stop 9/11. People were trying, but they didn’t have the tools. This tool, we believed, would help them. Let’s look at what’s happening right now. You ought to get this from the START Program at the University of Maryland. They have the statistics on terrorist attacks. 2012 and 2013. The number of terrorist attacks in 2012—do you know how many there were globally?

How many?

Six thousand seven hundred and seventy-one. Over ten thousand people killed. In 2013, it would grow to over ten thousand terrorist attacks and over twenty thousand people killed. Now, how did we do in the United States and Europe? How do you feel here? Safe, right? I feel pretty safe.


So think about how secure our nation has been since 9/11. We take great pride in it. It’s not because of me. It’s because of those people who are working, not just at N.S.A. but in the rest of the intelligence community, the military, and law enforcement, all to keep this country safe. But they have to have tools. With the number of attacks that are coming, the probability, it’s growing—

I’m sorry, could you say that once more?

The probability of an attack getting through to the United States, just based on the sheer numbers, from 2012 to 2013, that I gave you—look at the statistics. If you go from just eleven thousand to twenty thousand, what does that tell you? That’s more. That’s fair, right?

I don’t know. I think it depends what the twenty thousand—

—deaths. People killed. From terrorist attacks. These aren’t my stats. The University of Maryland does it for the State Department.

I’ll look at them. I will. So you’re saying that the probability of an attack is growing.

The probability is growing. What I saw at N.S.A. is that there is a lot more coming our way. Just as someone is revealing all the tools and the capabilities we have. What that tells me is we’re at greater risk. I can’t measure it. You can’t say, Well, is that enough to get through? I don’t know. It means that the intel community, the military community, and law enforcement are going to work harder.

Since Alexander invited us, let’s see what the START data say, shall we? Here’s what they tell us:

According to the annex, the 10 countries that experienced the most terrorist attacks in 2013 are the same as those that experience the most terrorist attacks in 2012.

Although terrorist attacks occurred in 93 different countries, they were heavily concentrated geographically. More than half of all attacks (57%), fatalities (66%), and injuries (73%) occurred in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. By wide margin, the highest number of fatalities (6,378), attacks (2,495) and injuries (14,956) took place in Iraq. The average lethality of attacks in Iraq was 40 percent higher than the global average and 33 percent higher than the 2012 average in Iraq.

The US hasn’t been attacked. But attacks are mushrooming in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. These not only happen to be places where we’ve been fighting the war on terror the longest and most directly, places where Alexander has been at the forefront of the fight, even before he took over at NSA. But they also happen to be those places overseas that the NSA uses to legitimize their global reach.

Yet 13 or 11 years of concentrated spying — of collect it all — in those places has not eliminated terrorism. On the contrary, terrorism is now getting worse.

And now they serve as both the proof that spying is working and that spying is more necessary than ever.

Rather than evidence that the War on Terror is failing.

We shouldn’t be surprised that we’re losing a war fighting which Alexander was one of the longest tenured generals (though I don’t think he bears primary responsibility for the policy decisions that have led to this state). After all, last year, Alexander said that also under his watch, we had been plundered like a colony via cyberattacks. He seems to think he lost both the war on terror and on cyberattacks.

Which, if you’re invested in Wall Street, ought to alarm you. Because that’s where Keith Alexander is headed to wage war next.

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.

12 replies
  1. Cujo359 says:

    His logic for that is not that terrorists struck the Boston Marathon last year, in spite of NSA apparently collecting on them but not reviewing the collection

    To belabor the obvious, which seems to escape a lot of people who don’t read this blog, collection on this scale isn’t likely to prevent attacks. What bulk collection does is make targeted investigations easier, whether the target is known terrorists or political enemies. When it comes to terrorism, too often the targets aren’t known ahead of time. There’s just a mountain of data with no map or compass to guide you.

    IOW, once you know what you’re looking for, it’s a whole lot easier to find it.

    There might be isolated cases where it can prevent an attack, but only if there’s enough time to comb through all the data for what is important.

    Like I said, blatantly obvious. Yet we keep seeing folks like Alexander justifying all this as a way to prevent attack, when it’s clearly not all that useful.

    • TomVet says:

      <blockquote cite="IOW, once you know what you’re looking for, it’s a whole lot easier to find it."

      Which is why the FBI likes their manufactured “homegrown terrorists” because they know right where to look. This lets them guarantee that they are Keeping Us Safe™.

  2. Mike Sulzer says:

    I think it is worse than the article implies. The main point START (which is a DHS funded “research” group, although KA refers to it as “for the State Department”) makes is that terrorism is increasing like crazy. But the countries where it is increasing are ones the US has invaded, or at least where it carries out various unstabilizing operations. That is, it takes time for the full effect of a US invasion to materialize. These events could be called civil wars, but why not call them terrorism? Then we have the US creating a long term investment in causing terrorism, an investment that pays dividends in increasing budgets and powers for those who would do more of the same. Thus Start cannot be called a research group at UMd. Here we have it acting as a propaganda machine funded by DHS. If it were legitimate, START researchers would have to be the first to point out that KA is misusing the statistics, but I have not seen reports of their doing so.

    • lefty665 says:

      Sorta like the indiscriminate overuse of antibiotics isn’t it? Survivors in the target population develop resistance. Pretty soon the whole population acquires it and proliferates. We should expect the terror stats for Yemen, Somalia and other places we are killing people to mirror the others. That will make the terrorism numbers even scarier.
      Bmaz, I’m logged on and have no edit. What am I doing wrong?

  3. bmaz says:

    Huh. Not sure. I am the least technical person here, but that was my understanding of the functionality. There should be two tabs, one labeled “visual”, the other labeled “text” in the comment drafting box – you might shift from one to other to see if that changes it. I will ask; sorry don’t have better answer!

      • Jim White says:

        If you look over on the right side of the front page of the blog, under the “Meta” heading you should find a tab that either says something like Log In or Create an Account. There are two levels of logging in. I think you’ve been at the default level that just creates a commenter name. Doing this additional process of account creation should get you to the point where you have the more powerful comment composition tools and (I hope) a window of time to edit comments.

  4. lefty665 says:

    Hi Jim, Under Meta I’ve got: Login, Entries RSS, Comments RSS, Login gets me to a simple word press screen, just their logo, username and password edit text boxes. Profile does not show visual switch, but does have screen colors and a bunch of personal information options. Help there says the WYSIWYG (visual editor) can be switched, but nothing shows on the screen. It goes directly from colors to personal information. I created an account very early in the update process, so that may be where I took a wrong turn. Not a big deal, but frustrating when I post something especially grammatically or factually stupid and cannot correct it. I may try creating a new account, but I hate moving from 665, it’s got such an interesting view. Thanks for your help. Sorry to clutter up an otherwise good post on Gen Keith.

    • orionATL says:

      this site is responding to this persistent viewer complaint in the same bureaucratic manner verizon or comcast would respond:

      “if only you follow our instructions, dear customer, things would work fine for you.”

      “i followed your instructions to the letter but things did not work fine.”

      bureaucratic response from emptywheel website:

      – ” “, ( ignore reader, no follow up)

      – “we are sorry you have a problem.”

      – repeat instructions that do not work. over and over again.

      my question for ew, bmaz, @jimwhite:

      when are you going to get off your collective ass and make editing easily accessible?

      your readers have been addressing this issue for two-three months and getting the same bureaucratic response from you all.

  5. lefty665 says:

    Again, sorry to clutter up an otherwise good post on Gen Keith.
    I keep my browsers pretty locked down. That may limit functionality, but I hope y’all don’t intend to require intrusive permissions for basic functions.
    I’d be happy if you implemented https. Make the bastards work a little to decrypt the site. ACLU does it.

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