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

By Sean Michael Kerner  |  Posted 2014-03-31 Print this article Print

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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