Attention! Cowboy on the Bridge

September 15, 2013

(Illustration found here).

Further tales of the NSA — this one on the Dr. Strangelove character, NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander, and the good general’s Star Trek obsession, and on our dime.
Via PBS:

“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.”

Glenn Greenwald at the Guardian also goes on the bridge, describing the real-life, science-fiction bat-shit crazy scene:

It’s a 10,740 square foot labyrinth in Fort Belvoir, Virginia.
The brochure touts how “the prominently positioned chair provides the commanding officer an uninterrupted field of vision to a 22′-0″ wide projection screen.”

The glossy display further describes how “this project involved the renovation of standard office space into a highly classified, ultramodern operations center.”
Its “primary function is to enable 24-hour worldwide visualization, planning, and execution of coordinated information operations for the US Army and other federal agencies.”
It gushes: “The futuristic, yet distinctly military, setting is further reinforced by the Commander’s console, which gives the illusion that one has boarded a star ship.”

And Foreign Policy magazine has a massive profile of the good general — it’s lengthy, but worth reading, though, it did tend to really, really piss me off.
Some snips:

“Alexander tended to be a bit of a cowboy: ‘Let’s not worry about the law. Let’s just figure out how to get the job done,'” says a former intelligence official who has worked with both men.
“That caused General Hayden some heartburn.

Today, the agency is routinely scooping up and storing Americans’ phone records.
It is screening their emails and text messages, even though the spy agency can’t always tell the difference between an innocent American and a foreign terrorist.
The NSA uses corporate proxies to monitor up to 75 percent of Internet traffic inside the United States.
And it has spent billions of dollars on a secret campaign to foil encryption technologies that individuals, corporations, and governments around the world had long thought protected the privacy of their communications from U.S. intelligence agencies.
The NSA was already a data behemoth when Alexander took over.
But under his watch, the breadth, scale, and ambition of its mission have expanded beyond anything ever contemplated by his predecessors.
In 2007, the NSA began collecting information from Internet and technology companies under the so-called PRISM program.
In essence, it was a pipes-bending operation.
The NSA gets access to the companies’ raw data–including e-mails, video chats, and messages sent through social media–and analysts then mine it for clues about terrorists and other foreign intelligence subjects.
Similar to how Alexander wanted the NSA to feed him with intelligence at INSCOM, now some of the world’s biggest technology companies — including Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Apple — are feeding the NSA.
But unlike Hayden, the companies cannot refuse Alexander’s advances.
The PRISM program operates under a legal regime, put in place a few years after Alexander arrived at the NSA, that allows the agency to demand broad categories of information from technology companies.
Never in history has one agency of the U.S. government had the capacity, as well as the legal authority, to collect and store so much electronic information.
Leaked NSA documents show the agency sucking up data from approximately 150 collection sites on six continents.
The agency estimates that 1.6 percent of all data on the Internet flows through its systems on a given day — an amount of information about 50 percent larger than what Google processes in the same period.

And like his ideal, Jean-Luc Picard, Alexander also has his Number One:

But Alexander was never alone in his obsession.
An obscure civilian engineer named James Heath has been a constant companion for a significant portion of Alexander’s career.
More than any one person, Heath influenced how the general went about building an information empire.
Several former intelligence officials who worked with Heath described him as Alexander’s “mad scientist.”
Another called him the NSA director’s “evil genius.”
For years, Heath, a brilliant but abrasive technologist, has been in charge of making Alexander’s most ambitious ideas a reality; many of the controversial data-mining tools that Alexander wanted to use against the NSA’s raw intelligence were developed by Heath, for example.
“He’s smart, crazy, and dangerous. He’ll push the technology to the limits to get it to do what he wants,” says a former intelligence official.
Heath has followed Alexander from post to post, but he almost always stays in the shadows.
Heath recently retired from government service as the senior science advisor to the NSA director — Alexander’s personal tech guru.
“The general really looked to him for advice,” says George, the former technical director.
“Jim didn’t mind breaking some eggs to make an omelet. He couldn’t do that on his own, but General Alexander could. They brought a sense of needing to get things done.
They were a dynamic duo.”

Indeed, this shit should be stuff of science fiction, of entertainment — reality fruitcake feeling like a captain, or an admiral, but alas just a general nut.

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