Can Congress Trust ‘Emperor Alexander’?

I’ve been fortunate (?) as a journalist to interview two directors of the National Security Agency, however briefly.

One was the late Bill Odom, who led the NSA for three years during Ronald Reagan’s administration, and died in 2008.

The other was Keith Alexander, appointed by George W. Bush’s first Defense Secretary, Don Rumsfeld. Barack Obama kept him in the job.

With NSA domestic surveillance in the news and Alexander putting in some serious face time before Congress, I took the time to dig up those old interviews.

What strikes me in retrospect is how both men spoke with conviction and candor.

Only one of them, however, spoke honestly. It wasn’t Alexander.

Consider this still-pertinent quote from Odom:

[Me]: What are your feelings on the NSA’s program of warrantless wiretapping of American citizens?

William Odom: It didn’t happen under my watch. And I’m still puzzled why somebody hasn’t tried to impeach the president for doing it. Any conservative in the United States who values his life [ought to be outraged]. In fact, the South seceded in defense of minority rights — why the hell have they forgotten them now? Ben Franklin said, “somebody who values security over liberty deserves neither.”

I interviewed Odom over the phone. I spoke to Alexander in person. He’d come to the town I was working in, Augusta, Georgia, to break ground on a new NSA facility.

Keith Alexander

I took the opportunity to ask him about the last domestic spying scandal, “warrantless wiretapping,” which has been weirdly absent from current coverage.

Here’s what he said to me while looking me directly in the eye:

“We don’t want to spy on Americans, nor do we. We want to spy on terrorists.”

It’s been a few years, and I forget the exact wording of the question that prompted that response. He left himself a little wiggle room–we don’t want to do it!–but it’s hard to excuse the fundamental dishonesty of his comment.

As everyone now knows, finally, the NSA does spy on Americans. It has done so more and more brazenly under Alexander’s watch, and the U.S. House of Representatives just voted its approval of his “catch it all” methods.

Here’s a choice excerpt from the Wired profile of Alexander by James Bamford:

Inside the government, the general is regarded with a mixture of respect and fear, not unlike J. Edgar Hoover, another security figure whose tenure spanned multiple presidencies. “We jokingly referred to him as Emperor Alexander—with good cause, because whatever Keith wants, Keith gets,” says one former senior CIA official who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity. “We would sit back literally in awe of what he was able to get from Congress, from the White House, and at the expense of everybody else.”

(Bamford, by the way, has another piece out in the New York Review of Books. It’s titled, “They Know Much More Than You Think.”)

I’m looking forward to Ron Wyden’s turn at the mic.

The other members of the U.S. Senate should keep in mind, when Alexander appears before them next week, that spies are paid to be very good liars.