It Started With a Hack: How an NSA Director Became a Four-Star General

At the RSA Conference, retired Gen. Keith Alexander, a former NSA director, had a message for Edward Snowden and a plan for a new security startup.

Gen. Alexander

SAN FRANCISCO—Retired Gen. Keith Alexander is best known as the man at the center of the National Security Agency (NSA) metadata collection program, revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden. Speaking at the RSA Conference here on April 24, Alexander talked about his life after retiring from the NSA in 2014.

Alexander (pictured) was onstage with Ted Schlein, partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, who asked the former director of the NSA how he became a four-star general. It was all due to a hack, Alexander said.

"Someone hacked into the Department of Defense [DoD] network," he said.

What had happened is that the NSA saw some information from the Department of Defense in foreign space where it should not have been.

"At the time, NSA was not able to look into the DoD network," Alexander recounted. "After 10 days, we were allowed in and found 1,500 pieces of malware."

Alexander said that the malware was discovered on a Friday afternoon and within 24 hours, a plan was put in place to correct the issues and build a better system. At the time, he said, Russia was blamed for the incident. As a result of that incident, U.S. Cyber Command was formed, in June 2009, and Alexander got his fourth star.

"So Russia started Cyber Command," Alexander said.

There was also some discussion about Snowden. Alexander was asked by Schlein if he were to send Snowden a Christmas card, what would it say?

"I would send him the oath, the one he claims he took. Maybe he should have read it all," Alexander said as the audience broke into spontaneous applause.

In his post NSA life, Alexander is the CEO of stealth security startup IronNet Cyber Security. He said that just because he retired from the military doesn't mean he had to walk away from cyber-security.

While Alexander didn't provide full details on what his company is doing, he did outline the problem space and where IronNet Cyber Security fits in. Alexander said that visibility is important for IT security. As such, situational awareness is critical, and the ability to provide a way of seeing traffic at network speed is critical. The IronNet platform aims to help provide better visibility to help organizations defend their own networks, he said.

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

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.