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General Alexander and the NSA


Gen. Keith Alexander of the National Security Agency has shown himself to be at times overly eager, and at other times incompetent in pursuing his convictions. Even if he was taking sharpened scissors to the Bill of Rights, he was barely capable of making good his mission. The zealous have a habit of stumbling.

Edward Snowden’s disclosures remain the perennial dilemma of security minions – they cannot claim that he has been effective, for that shows they have been incompetent in enabling such material to be accessed by a contractor. Nor can they deny that he has had no effect at all – he must be shown to be dangerous enough, credible enough, to warrant execration, capture and sentencing.

The Snowden disclosure also brings another matter of security into play: showing that the NSA is useful, that its funding is justified, and that the surveillance role is indispensable to the security of the United States. In testimony before the Senate, Alexander argued that the NSA’s phone data collection under section 215 of the Patriot Act had frustrated “dozens of terrorist events” in the United States and abroad.

Even here, Alexander could not get it right. There was disagreement, for instance, over the role played by the NSA in interdicting Najibullah Zazi, the man behind the 2009 plot to bomb the New York City subway. Alexander had told the Senate that the internet records collection under section 702 of the Fisa Amendments Act was what was essential, being “not just critical” but one “that developed the lead on [the Zazi case].”

Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, thought otherwise. It was the phone bulk collection “program that was used” in dealing with Zazi (Guardian, Jun 18). Rogers, never cheery about the Snowden novelty club of open information, is permanently fixated with the idea that the U.S. will return to the pre-surveillance era prior to the attacks of September 2001. The giant must not be shackled by legal briefs and oversight.

This tightrope of rhetoric and security is what Alexander finds himself on, though he would prefer to be working on the latter aspect of his work, rather than the former. Even his predecessor, General Michael Hayden, found his zeal to be troubling (Atlantic, Nov 12), a fascinating thought given that Hayden was the one who oversaw an aggressive spike in surveillance activities after the attacks of September 2001. “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’” (Foreign Policy, Sep 9).

Cowboy he might well be, but what of efforts to fire Alexander, let alone hold him, and dare we use that term, accountable? Senator John McCain of Arizona was one who decided that Alexander should be made to account, not for his assault on the American constitution, but for his carelessness in letting the likes of Snowden through. The zealot was not up to scratch. “Why did Edward Snowden have that information? And what are we doing so far as screening people who have access to this information? It’s outrageous, and someone ought to be held accountable.

In Der Spiegel, McCain called for a “wholesale housecleaning” of the intelligence stables, with considerable care being paid to the use of contractors. Asked whether Alexander should resign, McCain felt that he “should resign or be fired.” The focus was on making the NSA more effective, rather than accountable as such.

Unfortunately, the McCain formula, combining frankness with deflection, lucid determination with a moment of back peddling absurdity, had to manifest itself. Yes, he had said something or rather to a German magazine, but Politico would report subsequently that McCain had not, in fact, suggested Alexander resign at all. “Senator McCain believes that there needs to be accountability for the Snowden leaks, but he is not calling for the resignation of General Alexander, who is retiring soon.” And so, the McCain effort sank like a lead balloon: no one would be walking.

Accountability is a difficult word. It’s elasticity in political circles is troubling. But in terms of the NSA, its absence is invariably addictive. Indeed, the NSA’s creation took place in the name of unaccountability, a function of national security fears in keeping the empire afloat. Little wonder that monsters such as Alexander result as the offspring of their conjurers – the soil he grew from was contaminated and putrescent to begin with.

The intelligence industrial complex shows itself yet again to assimilate those who accuse it. From being indignant about a lack of accountability, McCain has shown himself to be feeding that very complex by getting at the wrong side of the problem. The reformers have yet to have their day before the minions of the NSA. The cowboy survives, at least for now, continuing his gun slinging, data filching ways. At least till retirement.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  He ran for the Australian Senate with Julian Assange for the WikiLeaks Party.  Email:

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:

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