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NSA chief's legacy is shaped by big data, for better and worse

Gen. Keith Alexander, who just retired as NSA director, achieved 'absolutely invaluable' results with digital spying but failed to anticipate how the public would feel about privacy.

March 31, 2014|By Ken Dilanian | This article has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details

But Timothy Edgar, a former White House privacy and civil liberties director who now teaches law at Georgetown University Law Center, said the NSA is "certainly not the villain in this story. They were doing exactly what the president and Congress told them to do."

What Alexander missed, Edgar and others said, was how Orwellian bulk data collection would look to a public with no context about how the NSA had been using the information.

Unlike the CIA, which makes a considerable effort to shape its image, the NSA had spent years shying away from public engagement. The agency's culture of secrecy is so extreme that in its early years, its existence was not even acknowledged. Unlike other intelligence agencies, the NSA didn't boast of its role, a crucial one, in helping find Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.

As a result, the NSA had little political capital when Snowden's disclosures began. Nor did its officials know how to deal with the barrage of stories. The resulting response was flat-footed, agency officials acknowledged privately.

"Keith's an engineer," said a former senior intelligence official who worked for Alexander and who commented on condition of anonymity. "With Keith, it was always, 'If we can do it, we ought to do it.'"

Alexander had a reputation for aggressiveness even before he came to the NSA. For much of his tenure, that approach helped him, particularly in dealing with one of the biggest challenges the NSA faced.

"They had so much data that they didn't know what to do with it, and one of Alexander's successes is how you make a mass of data your friend," said James Lewis, a cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Alexander implemented "big data" solutions that revolutionized the sorting and processing of intelligence. One such tool, created by young NSA engineers and later released to the public, was Apache Accumulo, a sorting tool that can process petabytes of data — many Libraries of Congress' worth.

The NSA relies on those sorts of innovations to keep ahead in the cat-and-mouse game of signals intelligence. And eventually, in five or 10 years, the United States will recover from the Snowden affair, Alexander said. But for now, once-fruitful tactics have become all but useless.

Sophisticated adversaries already knew a lot about U.S. capabilities, of course. But often, "the reason that we're successful is because people are lazy. They don't do what they're supposed to do," said retired Lt. Gen. Richard Zahner, a former senior NSA official.

Now, Russian ground commanders and Al Qaeda cell leaders are on notice that the NSA is nearly everywhere.

Alexander leaves office not knowing how deep the damage will go. It's a frustrating situation for a man who made his mark acquiring more information than anyone before him. Officials believe Snowden accessed as many as 1.7 million documents, but Alexander said investigators don't know how many of those he actually took, nor what he's passed to others.

"What the reporters have, what the Russians have, what the Chinese have" all remain questions, he said. "We don't know for sure on a lot of those things."

For the record, 2:40 p.m. April 2:  A previous version of this article incorrectly quoted John Inglis, the NSA's former top civilian official, as saying that the agency had been able to acquire "every Iraqi email, text message and phone-location signal in real time." Inglis said that the agency had acquired metadata of insurgent communications. It was other former officials who said that obtaining the messages among insurgents required the agency to acquire virtually all Iraqi communications.

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