NSA Director Gen. Alexander Retires: What Will Be His Legacy?

By Sean Michael Kerner  |  Posted 2014-03-31

NSA Director Gen. Alexander Retires: What Will Be His Legacy?

It wasn't all that long ago that the U.S National Security Agency (NSA) was often referred to as "No Such Agency." The super-secret intelligence division of the U.S. has long lived in the shadows, but that changed dramatically during the era of Gen. Keith Alexander.

Alexander's last day as the head of the NSA was Friday, March 28. He had served as the director of the NSA since 2005 and had been in the U.S. Army since 1974. After a life spent in the service of the U.S., Alexander is heading into retirement. However, I suspect given the current climate of continued disclosures about NSA practices, Alexander's retirement might not be the quiet respite he deserves.

In 2012, Alexander himself stepped into the limelight to help bring awareness to the NSA and to recruit security professionals. At the 2012 DefCon security conference, Alexander was the keynote speaker. I was in the front row for that keynote, no more than 20 feet away from the general. DefCon doesn't give any preferential seating to the press, so I had staked out my seat hours in advance, waiting, like so many others, to hear Alexander speak.

Alexander's 2012 message was an aspirational one, praising the DefCon Kids effort of that year that helped provide information security education training to children. That keynote was also a recruiting effort for Alexander.

"This is all about our future; we can't sit on the sidelines or let others that don't understand this space tell us what to do," said Alexander, who appeared on stage not in his military uniform, but instead opting for a more casual DefCon T-shirt. "That's why I came here, to solicit your help."

At the end of his prepared remarks, Alexander took a few questions from DefCon founder Jeff Moss. One of the questions was whether or not the NSA has a dossier on every American.

"No we don't have a file on every American, it's just not true," Alexander responded.

At the end of Alexander's DefCon keynote, the overall atmosphere in the crowd was relatively positive and upbeat. Little did anyone know at the time how things would change within the next year.

In June 2013, NSA contractor Edward Snowden fled the U.S. to Hong Kong, where he first disclosed information that he had stolen from the NSA about its surveillance activities. The first major disclosure from Snowden was about the PRISM program that collects metadata on all U.S. phone calls. News of the NSA's PRISM program ignited a debate about privacy and surveillance and whether or not the NSA was stepping beyond boundaries set by the U.S Constitution.

Alexander was banned from DefCon in 2013, but the Black Hat 2013 conference welcomed him, and it was there that he gave what might well be the most pivotal speech he's ever delivered. Remember, Alexander came to Black Hat, just a few weeks after the initial Snowden disclosures, at a time when there was intense interest in what the NSA could say in its defense.

For Alexander's Black Hat 2013 keynote, I was once again in the front row (this time only 15 feet away), and I sat next to a cadre of very serious looking U.S. government officials. The anticipation to see Alexander speak was unlike anything I had ever experienced. What could this man say to refute the claims that the NSA had overstepped the bounds of privacy?

With surprising candor and humility, Alexander explained what PRISM was all about. He stressed time and again that the NSA's actions were all about helping to connect the dots to make sure another 9/11 terrorist attack never happens.

NSA Director Gen. Alexander Retires: What Will Be His Legacy?

Alexander also emphasized that there U.S. government oversight over the NSA's activities and the agency is not wantonly listening in on everyone's phone calls. During a controlled question and answer session, Trey Ford, general manager of Black Hat, asked Alexander if the NSA could listen in to calls he makes to his mom.

"We have technical controls to limit that; then there is policy too," Alexander said. "Can I intercept my daughter's emails? No. You may be able to."

The highlight of Alexander's 2013 Black Hat keynote for me wasn't the prepared remarks or the question and answer period that followed. The highlight was when Alexander was heckled by a member of the Black Hat audience.

During Alexander's keynote a heckler yelled out, "Read the Constitution!"

Rather than just ignoring the heckler, or calling for security to have the heckler removed, Alexander stood his ground and quickly responded, "I have and you should too!"

For me, that simple incident with the heckler sums up the legacy of Alexander. Sitting so close to the general, I could see the passion and fire in his demeanor that marked him as a man of extreme conviction. Without any shadow of a doubt, Alexander believed that he was doing the right thing to defend the American way of life and the U.S. Constitution.

Snowden has argued otherwise.

Many in the global community and in the U.S. have sided with Snowden on the privacy issue. The whole concept of bulk metadata collection in fact is now under review by President Obama, and the Obama administration has also pledged to reform the NSA. However, at no point has anyone within the administration said that Alexander himself had ever done anything wrong.

Alexander is a four-star general, and those stars aren't just for decoration. He earned those stars through a lifetime of commitment and service to his nation. There is no question in my mind that from Alexander's perspective, he was always trying to do what he viewed as being the right thing.

Privacy in America, however, isn't a privilege; it's a right, and it's a right that is taken very seriously. The idea that the government is infringing on the privacy of individuals without cause is one that is just not acceptable. Balancing the needs of security and privacy is no easy task, but it's a task that fell on the shoulders of Gen. Alexander.

While Alexander served the U.S. for years, he will forever be linked with the Snowden disclosures, which happened on his watch. Aside from the privacy debate, there is an internal security question. How did a single contractor walk out the front door of the NSA with a treasure trove of the spymaster's secrets?

Even though Alexander is now retired, no doubt he will be asked his views as new Snowden disclosures emerge and as reforms are proposed for the NSA. I would hope that Alexander will also find the time to collect his memoirs at some point, so we'll get as much of his story as we can.

One thing, however, that I don't expect Alexander to ever do is to shake the hand of Snowden, when and if Snowden is ever repatriated to the U.S. While many view Snowden today as a whistleblower and Snowden views himself as a patriot of the U.S. Constitution, I think it's fair to say that Gen. Keith Alexander will never see Snowden in that light.

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

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