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Interview with NSA Director Lt. Gen. Keith B. Alexander

On Aug. 16, Siobhan Gorman, a correspondent in The Sun's Washingtonbureau, interviewed Lt. Gen. Keith B. Alexander, 53, the new director ofthe National Security Agency, in his headquarters office at Fort Meade.Here is a transcript of the interview as recorded, transcribed and editedby The Sun.

The Sun: Thank you so much for making the time. The first thing I wascurious about was, I heard you held a town meeting and you told a fewjokes. I was wondering how well they were received and how the town meetingwent.

Alexander: The joke from the jokester's perspective, or from the people?From my perspective, they were great.

The Sun: What were they?

Alexander: Actually it wasn't jokes, it was how do you liven it up a littlebit to show people that you can work hard and have a good time. And thesepeople work hard and they've got to know they can laugh, and it's not goingto be taken against them. So, you know, somebody asked me: "Who's yourboss?" [That] was one of the jokes. They said, "You work for the Secretaryof Defense. You work for Dr. [Stephen A.] Cambone. You work for General[Michael V.] Hayden [principal deputy director of national intelligence andformer NSA director]. You work for Ambassador [John D.] Negroponte[director of national intelligence]. You work for the vice president. Youwork for the president. So who's your real boss?" And I said, "My wife."And that was just a joke, but ...

The Sun: Did they laugh?

Alexander: Oh, yeah.

The Sun: Politely, or did they really mean it?

Alexander: No, they really got a laugh out of that. They really did, and Ithink it loosened them up to show them you can mix humor and hard worktogether. And I think the other thing that I like to do is: If you're goingto work hard and you're going to be making really tough decisions, you wantto put people at ease, so they really feel that they can communicate. Andif you don't put people at ease, they don't talk. And my experience isputting people at ease gets them to start talking back to you.

The Sun: When was it?

Alexander: We've had several. We've actually done three of them. My intentis to reach out to the work force and go out and meet everyone, so I'vebeen doing that. I think the first one was on the second of August. We didone yesterday here, again, which would have made it the 15th. We didone at the FANX [the Friendship Annex, a training facility that houses theNational Cryptologic School] last week, up in the Baltimore area. And sowe've had three of them.

The Sun: Are the meetings targeting different sets of employees?

Alexander: Yeah, the first one was the whole work force. The second one was some of the seniors [senior executives] to explain to them what I expect ofthem in terms of the values we have, where I come from, what my values are,where I see things going, to try to put them in this mindset. You know,everybody comes in, and you hear all these different things. I hear that "Ais mad at you and C is not." So you get all the rumors. I said, "We canstart right now just putting the facts on the table."

Transformation, one of the issues that somebody brought up, is itgoing to stop? Are you going to go back six years? And the answer is: We'regoing forward. We're not going back. Some great work has been done ontransformation with respect to Transformation 1.0 and 2.0.

General Hayden and I have sat down and discussed what is best for theagency and how we continue and where we go, and we corporately agreed thatcontinuing on with transformation is what we've got to do.

The Sun: By that you mean the larger set of reforms that General Hayden setout?

Alexander: That's right. And so now what we're doing, there are some areasthat he said, "If I were coming in, I would put a little more time in hereand a little more time here," and some great insights that he gave me andsome great support. So when talking to the work force, I gave them justthat. I said, "Let's be real honest, I know you read in the paper thatthere's this big fight going on between, you know, Jack Lemmon and WalterMatthau. Well, it's not true. I mean, they do discuss, but you know, let'slook at what General Hayden's done: Six years here, you know, our countryowes him a great debt of gratitude for working his whole career for theservice of our nation, and what he did here is extraordinary."

That we would argue over points that the country wants us to argue,is something that is logical. What they don't put in the papers -- oh, by theway, they agree on 99 percent of what they discuss -- it's those kinds ofissues that don't come out.

The Sun: Which points? What are the key points you agree upon?

Alexander: Transformation. Transformation and moving us forward; how we'redoing on the collection; where the intelligence community has to go. Ithink the things they're doing in DNI are on the mark. We're a small playerin that, but from our perspective, a very important player. And on allthose, every issue that we've had on those, we've been in sync.

When you look at what are the priorities, when you look at it from aservice perspective, or an agency perspective, of course there will bedifferent perspectives of which goes first, the service or the agency, thechicken or the egg.

The Sun: When you say that, do you mean, how are you distinguishing between the service and the agency?

Alexander: Your military services, your Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines.

The Sun: Do you mean tactical versus national?

Alexander: That's one, tactical versus national; military versus civilian;defense versus offense. All three of those are here at NSA -- one of thethings that makes this so powerful for our country, when you bring allthree things together. And now it also means that you have to talk acrossand try to bridge a whole series of folks who have different objectives.Which goes first, this or this? The answer is: Well, we can do both.Someone says, "Are you spending too much time on your national mission atthe deficit of your tactical? Are you spending too much on your tactical atthe deficit of your national?" The answer is: It's a network. We're doingboth, and we're doing them extremely well.

And that's what has impressed me the last two-and-a-half weeks here,going around here and seeing what great people they are and how good theydo their job. How important it is. You know, we're a nation at war, and thisis an agency at war, supporting the nation, our nation. And so when youthink about that, they do it extremely well.

You go around and talk to all the people. We've gone to lunch acouple times where I go to the cafeteria and sit down with a number offolks, the co-op students. I think there were some bets going on: He won'tdo A, B or C. You know, he's not going to ever come into the cafeteria andjust sit down with folks. Well, I'd already done that.

And the reason is that, a lot of these are what we call co-opstudents, these are students who are in universities who come in here likean intern. And you get to talk to them. What great talent we have in ourcountry. And what a great opportunity the National Security Agency has tobring those folks in and show them what we do. So as they look at theirfuture careers, perhaps the defense of our nation will be one of them. Andwe need good people like that. And you have friends out there, I know, thathave done the same thing. So, it's just great.

The Sun: You were talking I think about transformation, I think you calledit 1.1 and 1.2 ...

Alexander: 1.0 and 2.0

The Sun: 1.0 and 2.0. So you see your mission now as Transformation 2.0?

Alexander: Completing 2.0, which is what we're in the process of, which issome of our mission alignment, as we call it, or the build-out for theenterprise, how we continue to make this agency work as an extendedenterprise.

The Sun: Linking up its various components?

Alexander: That's right, and the field locations and balancing the missionobjectives and realigning that as we go along, which is a necessary part,and it also strengthens the network capabilities of us. It's also a way toensure there's no single point of failure, so a lot of things [are] goingon with that. And as we finish that, and we complete that in thetransformation, we're going to go on to 3.0 and 4.0 and 5.0, and you knowwe will never be -- if we stopped at just doing typewriters, who was thecompany that did that? International Business Machines. Where would they betoday? And so they've transformed out of necessity and we will have to,too. And so transformation is just part of what we have to do to remainrelevant for the country.

The Sun: Now, is it a program that you're calling Transformation? And isthat what General Hayden called it as well?

Alexander: It's actually the vision, what I'll give you is our strategicvision, over these next few years, is Transformation 2.0, and I can giveyou some insights to it. 1.0 was kind of going from a product to acapabilities basis. Instead of working our specific collection disciplines,each one on a different target area, and each doing a set of collection,analysis, and reporting, perhaps looking at, instead, doing a capabilitiesbase, where we do collection in one area, analysis in one area. Does thatmake sense?

The Sun: So you were changing from the target focus to the kind ofcollection?

Alexander: Yes, and that's very powerful. And as we go into 2.0 we need toimprove our collaboration between our missions in the intel community withcustomers. How do we reach out and how do we do the build-out on ourmission alignment?

The Sun: So is 2.0 what you are initiating, or do you see that as ...

Alexander: I see that as continuing what General Hayden has had. So 2.0 issomething that they started and we're continuing. And we will finish up andgo into 3.0, which would be into the network and beyond, which is one ofthe ones that they were emerging as I got here, which is some of our rolesin network operations and network warfare.

The Sun: What do you mean by network operations? What would be a goodexample?

Alexander: Computer network operations. The Internet. How do you now goagainst a network instead of go against a single target?

The Sun: I was going to ask you about that. Looking more broadly, I wastalking with Admiral [Vice Admiral Mike] McConnell [former NSA director],who mentioned that you had really focused the Army, or had been working onrefocusing the Army against more of a terrorist network-type enemy, and Iwas wondering what your thoughts are on how you start to get at that here?

Alexander: Well, I can jump back to the Army part first. It was great withGeneral [Peter J.] Schoomaker, the chief [of staff of the Army], when hecame in and was looking at Army transformation. One of the statements hemade was really something that our country needs to think about, which Ithought was superb: Our nation doesn't need an Army to be an Army thatalways did A, and you could say, make typewriters. We needed an Army forthe defense of our country to defend it against those threats that wouldemerge.

And as those threats changed, we had to have an Army that changed tomeet those threats. As you go from the conventional threats that the SovietUnion posed in the '80s to an unconventional set of threats that terroristsand other irregular warfare pose today, you need a different Army withdifferent capabilities that can spread that whole spectrum of warfare.

The National Security Agency needs to do the same thing in ourcollection, our capability. Does that make sense?

The Sun: How do you do it?

Alexander: Transformation. The real issue is how do you do it efficiently.I think the way to do it efficiently is smaller steps, more rapidly done,rather than try to take one big jump and make it all the way across. Sothat was part of General Hayden's testimony [in April], too. I think he hitit right on the head. That's exactly what we need to do. We can spiralforward much of what we need to do. We have some great capabilities here.

The Sun: Getting at that Transformation 3.0 issue, what kinds of strategiescan be employed to start focusing on networks as opposed to targets?

Alexander: Well, one is ... the volume of data that we collect is goingto continue to grow. And so one of the things ... you look at is how dowe now do analysis in a new environment?

And one of the things that the Army wrestled with too, is as [you]get more information to your analysts, they have to have the tools now tohandle that greater volume of information. And so analysts are going to betaking on a different role. The information that you used to collect, nowto get a relevant piece of information -- finding a tank division that wasmoving out there [points out the window], if you miss that, something'swrong. OK, so think about it. So now, collecting on a tank division was alittle bit easier. Now here's the difference, find a terrorist in a citywhere there are 22 million people. That's a much more difficult, much morecomplex problem that requires all our agencies to work together. How do wedo that?

And so you're now trying to find out information about informationthat gets into things like extensive markup language or XML tagging. Howyou handle data. How you visualize that data, and how we jump fromindustrial-age analysis to the information-age analysis that our countryneeds. And so I think what we're embarking on, what we have been doing, isjumping from one era to another. Does that make sense? And I think that iswhere our country needs us to go for our security.

The Sun: So do you then see the kind of change or transformation that you'dlike to see happen here, is that somewhat akin to what you were doing atthe Army? Because I know that there you were developing the InformationDominance Center and things like that. And that was sort of trying to workon the needle in the haystack problem. Is that analogous?

Alexander: It's analogous. Oh, by the way, you know who one of ourbenefactors was to do that, who helped fund that? [It] was NSA. That iskind of ironic, and for the good of both NSA and us was to get some ofthese tool sets to all the analysts, so we corporately did that.

Now I see this going a little bit further. So let me just jump youback into an Army analogy that I used when I was a G-2 [Army intelligenceofficer], of how you shared information. That went from a theater to atheater to a corps, corps to a division, division to a brigade, brigade toa battalion, battalion to a company, company to a platoon, and then you getthe guys in the front end.

If you look at that and you think about the time that informationflowed under the old way, that was the only way you could do it. And itstarts back to the Civil War where you have that guy on that ridge withsignal flags, and then it would go down to the next. ... OK, now thinkif you were flying in an airplane and we're passing you that informationlike that, when it was going from there to there to there [he traces alonga map mounted under glass on his conference table]. You're over bad countryall this way here, and then all of a sudden they say, "Oops. They got shotdown but we were passing the message." Now jump forward. How do we do thatfor our soldiers and Marines and civilians in Iraq? They aren't part of thenetwork. But they need to be.

So one of the big transformation agendas we have is how do you tiethe people to the network so that information flows freely to those whoneed it for IED [improvised explosive device, or roadside bomb]information, for attack, for operations. Does that make sense?

So now what we did was we just turned that whole paradigm around inthe Army and said, "Uh-oh. The guys who need it in first are the ones whoare in peril most." That means turning around the way we think aboutinformation.

Now when you think about how we used to do it and how we're doing it,it's a similar thing, except for on the analytic part. So, much of that hasbeen ongoing here within the agency. So those things you already see aregoing on. What we'll do is continue those. We'll bring in and continue towork those. But that transformation has already started. It is a logicalstep to do.

We will debate strongly and argue about: Do you use this extensivemarkup language or this one? And quite honestly, it's like: Do you go withthis path to get to here, or this path? And they're probably equidistant.And half the people would be on one path and half would be on the other.Both of them are going to get you there. We'll have to debate those andmake sure we get those right, but that's what we have to do.

The Sun: A lot of times leaders will set out a couple things they want todo early on, 30 to 60 days out or something like that. Do you haveanything like that in mind?

Alexander: Before I jump on that, what we did is, we said -- I could come inand say, "I want to do A." And you know, the thought about me saying we'regoing to do A might be exactly the wrong thing to do. So what wecorporately did is to say this: We've asked for a couple of panels to lookat what we're doing in a couple of areas in our senior acquisition exec[procurement] area and across the board in transformation. So GeneralHayden and I worked a paper up -- the terms of reference, if you will, ofwhat these NSA advisory boards would look at to help us get exactly wherewe are so everybody understands it.

So they come from the NSA advisory board. The key for that would be:What do they see as the key things that we have to finish to get the 2.0done and then to start on to get the next phase and the next phase and thenext phase? And so rather than me jump forward and dictate out of ignorancewhere we ought to go, I have talked with previous directors, four of them,including General Hayden, and a number of folks. And we're doing this panelat the same time while I go around and talk to all the people.

End of August, what we'll do is, we'll say, "OK, here's where weall think we are. Here's what we've got left to do. Everybody agrees withthat. OK, let's do these things in these priorities. And here's where wehave got to get to for the security of our nation." And put that out as thevision as we evolve into 3.0. So that's the way we'll do it, and it will bemore of a team effort than one person dictating it. And there are, if youthink about that, we have great talent here, we ought to use it.

So that would be my approach, to bring everybody in, kind of say,"OK, what do you think, what do you think, what do you think?"

Just as an aside, some of the students that we get here for thesummer, the co-op students. I told you I sat down at lunch with them.

You ask them questions like this. It's kind of interesting some ofthe comments you get back. It really is. I had one say, "You know, if youput me in charge of A," -- he's been here one year, 23 years old,brilliant -- "you know, I really understand this. If you put me in charge ofthis, we could fix it."

So, you know, there's youth and then experience will come. But thinkabout the capabilities of what we can do. So he's probably got some goodideas. And you know, the younger generation understands computers perhapsbetter than many in -- and not my generation, of course, I'm the same as theyounger -- but the other generation. So there is that. What we've got to dois use both, and we've got to communicate across those generation gaps.

The Sun: Actually, that leads to one of the things I wanted to ask youabout. The NSA set out to hire 7,500 people I guess last fall. Is thatsomething you are planning to continue? How do you approach that?

Alexander: I don't know about numbers. Let me tell you about the way we goabout hiring and the way we're attracting youth. There's a great programhere, the director's summer program, which brings together some of the bestcrypto-mathematic kids in the nation here. They have a clearance. They workon classified projects and they do great things. They have senior mentors.But what it does, it helps them see how important the work that we're doingis. And you know what? When they leave here -- I talked to a bunch of them -- Iwould tell you that 60 to 75 percent of those that came will come back for ajob here.

Think how good that is for our country. These are the top kids in ournation. They'll come here to work. The reason is they find it challenging,exhilarating, and they know it's important. And what we've got to do iscontinue to attract that, because many of these kids, as you know, could goout and make more money someplace else. But think of how good that will befor our country. And they enjoy it. So we've got to make it fun. We've gotto make it rewarding. We've got to come across with the philosophy that, asthey have, that you know the people. You like the people that you workwith.

There's a great book, "Monday Morning Leadership" [by David Cottrell],that [says] people don't quit jobs, they don't go for money. People quitpeople first. Everything that we're all about, everything that we are here,we can talk all our systems that we're doing, we talk about all thetechnology, but the core of what we are is people.

The Sun: Are you going to continue with that hiring program?

Alexander: Oh, absolutely. Now, I just don't know the numbers. You askedthe numbers. We are continuing. I just don't know where we are in thehiring process, and where we'd be, but I think that will continue to growand I know each year we grow more, and that we'll continue to hire. I justdon't know that it's 7,500.

Donald Weber [NSA public affairs officer]: It's over a period of five yearsuntil 2008.

Alexander: Yeah, I think what you're seeing is a gradual increase that willlead to about 7,500 over a five-year period.

The Sun: That's just what I was asking about. I was told the Cole bombinghas, had really influenced your thinking early on, vis-a-vis regard toterrorism, particularly in terms of setting up the Information DominanceCenter and things like that. So, I wanted to get a little bit of your ...

Alexander: I was the CENTCOM [Central Command] J-2 [intelligence director] at the Cole bombing and had an opportunity. General [Tommy] Franks was theCENTCOM commander, and I really enjoyed working for General Franks, whocould be a hard person, oh, by the way. But I had both a personal andprofessional relationship and had known him for years. The question thatcame up in the Cole bombing is almost a breaking [point] in warfare, fromgoing after what I'll call the old form of warfare to now we're goingafter terrorists. How do you now change the intelligence system to dothat?

We had a great meeting up here after the congressional testimony inOctober of 2000, that all of the intel community, including NSA and others,came to say: What do we need to do that's different?

That did shape a lot of how I thought and how I still think aboutwhere we're going. And it was driven by the analysts who were working theproblem. Why don't we have information on this, and how do we collect it?What does that mean for analysis? What does that mean about meta-data? Allthis information that's coming in, it really does shape and it starts tosay, hmmm, this is a new era. You probably knew about it before [this],called the Information Age, about how you're dealing with all that. And itdid, the USS Cole was a significant event.

And so I left CENTCOM with one of the missions that General Franksand General [Hugh] Shelton [chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] andothers had given us, which was: How do you now start building thecapability in the community to handle data problems like that? Hence, theInformation Dominance Center. Does that make sense?

The Sun: I did want to ask you about one thing because it came up as I wastalking with people about why it was that your nomination got held up for awhile. And the two reasons that were given to me, and I wanted to give youthe opportunity to speak about it was: one, General Hayden pushing back,and two, members' [of Congress] concerns about Abu Ghraib ...

Alexander: Or three.

The Sun: What?

Alexander: Or three.

The Sun: What was three?

Alexander: The bureaucracy. First, I can help dispel parts of that, andthere are questions about Abu Ghraib, and we can talk about that. Butfirst, let's go into General Hayden. Just the opposite. General Hayden wasone of the folks that pushed it [the nomination]. While it was kind ofironic that I think the decision in my office call with AmbassadorNegroponte actually went on in early May.

So the decision had already been made, and General Hayden was verysupportive from May on. It wasn't announced until the end of June. That wasjust a combination of how it goes through the bureaucracy -- the Army and thePentagon -- to get out. It came out the 29th or 30th of June. I was confirmedfour weeks later. When you look at the confirmation process, that's notbad. Look at some of the judges.

OK, now, there were questions about Abu Ghraib that every logicalperson should ask, because as a soldier and an intel officer, one of myduties was to help present to Congress how we do interrogations in otherforums. Now, as you may know, you're familiar with Goldwater-Nichols [a1986 law reorganizing the Defense Department], and one of the thingspeople, of course, lose sight of is what Goldwater-Nichols does to theservice staff versus the combatant commanders. In this regard, the servicestaffs do not have the authority for the operations. The conduct ofoperations in Iraq doesn't fall under the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines.It falls under combatant commander. And we provide the soldiers and theequipment, the resources to them.

Now, one of the questions that one of the senior senators asked mewas, had we gone too far on Goldwater-Nichols? My answer is, we haven'tgone too far, but there are some things that we need to look at that we nowneed to look at with what is the role of the services in providingcapability to the combatant command, especially for building architecturesand, perhaps, intel oversight.

A point of reference is when General [Ricardo S.] Sanchez [commanderof U.S. forces in Iraq] said, "I'm going to need somebody to investigatethe intel part of this." It was us who recommended, hmmm, we ought to getthe best investigator that we know. And so my recommendation was the bestofficer I knew to do that was General [George R.] Fay. The reason was that,while in his civilian job, he ran claims and stuff for Chubb Insurance.He's the best investigator I know, he really is.

So we said, "If you want the best, this is the best guy." So wehelped work that. So the question was: What's your role in that? Our rolewas more explaining how the Army operates in terms of doctrine and to helpthe congressional members understand what did go on and what happened as wewent through the series of investigations. But as a service intel officer,I had no direct responsibility in the operations.

But I did have, in terms of the lessons learned, making sure that theproblems that we had got integrated back into training our folks. And Ithink all the members of Congress that I talked to, those were the kinds ofquestions, and once they understood that, it was not a big issue. Really,what they wanted to do was to make sure they did their part correct inasking those questions. So that's what went on in between the end of Juneand the end of July. Does that make sense?

The Sun: That, that sort of back-and-forth with members of Congress ...

Alexander: And it actually wasn't as much back-and-forth as, oh, by theway, remember Congress is also doing a whole series of other things. Theywere trying to get the Defense department bill. As important as I reallythink I am, how many people did they have to go up and get through, and howmany could they get through?

What I would say is, look at all the people they had to get through.They had a bunch to get through, including myself and General [Ronald L.]Burgess [nominated for a position at the National IntelligenceDirectorate], who they said we have to check out. But they're checkingeverybody out now. And when they did that, OK, so our part went throughpretty easy. There are others that are still being looked at for alldifferent sorts of things you'll see going on. Oh, and we've got to get theDefense authorization bill and, oh, we've got to get this. So there's anawful lot going on in Congress. Does that make sense?

The Sun: What do you do for fun?

Alexander: What do I do for fun? ... I play golf. I like to play golf.

The Sun: I heard you make your own golf clubs. How do you do that?

Alexander: I do. You can buy parts, and you just glue them together. Youget tape and bailing wire. Actually you can make some good ones. I didthat for some of our allies, you know, for working with other countries,especially Korea and Japan and those that like to play golf. Well, we madethese great drivers, you can make them really cheap, and we gave them toour friends. And I can knock the ball a long way with those. Though, I wasgoing to say, you know, we're in August. This year, I've gotten to playgolf three times.

The Sun: That says something about how busy you are ...

Alexander: Yeah.

The Sun: What's your average day like in terms of the time and such thatyou're putting in?

Weber: Just to note, we're over, so this is probably the last question.

Alexander: I normally get up at 5, and my wife and I go work out,because she doesn't want me to turn into a beach ball. I get home, say,about six, eat breakfast and come into work about 6:45, and I leave workabout two in the afternoon [laughs], I, and watching Laura [Roeding, anaide, present for the interview], she's thinking, I'm missing somethinghere. I like to leave by seven. I'd like to leave by seven. I say we'repretty good about that, though not always. Sometimes it goes a little bitlater.

I do work weekends, but I don't mind working weekends, especially ifit's just me because I don't want other people to feel like they have tocome in. It gives me an opportunity to read all the information that I hadand catch up. So, that's about how it goes. We've got to run to anothermeeting.

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