“Rather than look for a single needle in the haystack, his approach was, ‘Let’s collect the whole haystack,’ ” said one former senior U.S. intelligence official who tracked the plan’s implementation. “Collect it all, tag it, store it. . . . And whatever it is you want, you go searching for it.”
The unprecedented data collection plan, dubbed Real Time Regional Gateway, would play a role in breaking up Iraqi insurgent networks and significantly reducing the monthly death toll from improvised explosive devices by late 2008. It also encapsulated Alexander’s controversial approach to safeguarding Americans from what he sees as a host of imminent threats, from terrorism to devastating cyberattacks.
In his eight years at the helm of the country’s electronic surveillance agency, Alexander, 61, has quietly presided over a revolution in the government’s ability to scoop up information in the name of national security. And, as he did in Iraq, Alexander has pushed hard for everything he can get: tools, resources and the legal authority to collect and store vast quantities of raw information on American and foreign communications.
His successes have won accolades from political leaders of both parties as well as from counterterrorism and intelligence professionals who say the NSA chief’s efforts have helped foil dozens of terrorist attacks. His approach also has drawn attack from civil rights groups and a bipartisan group of lawmakers. One Democrat who confronted Alexander at a congressional hearing last month accused the NSA of crossing a line by collecting the cellphone records of millions of Americans.
“What authorization gave you the grounds for acquiring my cellphone data?” demanded Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), waving his mobile phone at the four-star general.
New details of the spy agency’s vast reach were brought to light last month by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who leaked classified information on government programs that sweep up “metadata” on phone calls and e-mails by Americans. Those revelations in turn have spotlighted the role played by Alexander, the NSA’s avuncular leader and, by all accounts, a driving force behind a post-Sept. 11, 2001, quest to transform an agency inundated by the data revolution into one that can exploit it to defend the nation.
As portrayed by supporters, Alexander is animated by a spymaster’s awareness of serious, overlapping threats arrayed against the United States. They include foreign and homegrown terrorists. They also include a host of adversaries who are constantly probing the country’s cyberdefenses, looking for opportunities to steal secrets or unleash mayhem by shutting down critical infrastructure. Like many national security officials of his generation, Alexander’s sensibilities were shaped by a series of painful intelligence lapses leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks.