How the NSA wooed Congress to get what they wanted

In a long profile in Foreign Policy, Shane Harris describes Keith Alexander, the head of NSA, as a cowboy who disdained the law and felt that he could do what he needed to do to get the results he wanted.

“He said at one point that a lot of things aren’t clearly legal, but that doesn’t make them illegal,” says a former military intelligence officer who served under Alexander at INSCOM.

Alexander wants as much data as he can get. And he wants to hang on to it for as long as he can. To prevent the next terrorist attack, he thinks he needs to be able to see entire networks of communications and also go “back in time,” as he has said publicly, to study how terrorists and their networks evolve. To find the needle in the haystack, he needs the entire haystack.

When Alexander arrived, the NSA was secretly investing in experimental databases to store these oceans of electronic signals and give analysts access to it all in as close to real time as possible. Under his direction, it has helped pioneer new methods of massive storage and retrieval. That has led to a data glut. The agency has collected so much information that it ran out of storage capacity at its 350-acre headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland, outside Washington, D.C. At a cost of more than $2 billion, it has built a new processing facility in the Utah desert, and it recently broke ground on a complex in Maryland. There is a line item in the NSA’s budget just for research on “coping with information overload.”

As a result, the NSA has never been more powerful, more pervasive, and more politically imperiled.

How did he manage to acquire such power?

When he was running the Army’s Intelligence and Security Command, Alexander brought many of his future allies down to Fort Belvoir for a tour of his base of operations, a facility known as the Information Dominance Center. It had been designed by a Hollywood set designer to mimic the bridge of the starship Enterprise from Star Trek, complete with chrome panels, computer stations, a huge TV monitor on the forward wall, and doors that made a “whoosh” sound when they slid open and closed. Lawmakers and other important officials took turns sitting in a leather “captain’s chair” in the center of the room and watched as Alexander, a lover of science-fiction movies, showed off his data tools on the big screen.

“Everybody wanted to sit in the chair at least once to pretend he was Jean-Luc Picard,” says a retired officer in charge of VIP visits.

Alexander wowed members of Congress with his eye-popping command center.

Our political leaders seem to be children at heart, thrilled to be able to play make-believe with shiny toys.. You can see images of the Star Trek command center built by Alexander to woo people to support him.

Our tax dollars at work, folks.


  1. Nick Gotts says

    It’s also worth asking how many Congresspersons, and other powerful people, have nothing in their online or phone interactions that they would not want to become public knowledge. It needn’t be anything illegal – use of entirely legal porn; adultery or just flirting their spouse does not know about; expressions of a political view they are now opposed to; admissions of atheism or some other unpopular belief; disparaging remarks about a colleague. The head of the NSA may already be, in reality, the most powerful person in the world.

  2. sailor1031 says

    @Nick; worse than J edgar Hoover by a couple of orders of magnitude. At least Hoover had to dig up the dirt on politicians himself; these morons are happily providing it all to Alexander. I wonder if any of them have yet realised – or are they too stupid even for that?


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