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.