“Hackers, Spies, and Freedom” Public Lecture Recap


Article By: Megan Wildhood

On Thursday, April 9 at Royal Brougham Pavilion, General Keith Alexander addressed a sizeable crowd.  Then SPU Professor of Political Science, Dr. Katya Drozdova, interviewed him about “what it takes to defend the U.S. and the free world in these challenging times from unprecedented cyber security issues.”  General Alexander is a father of four and grandfather of sixteen and holds several degrees including a Bachelor’s of Science from the U.S. Military Academy, an MBA, and a Master’s in Physics and Systems Technology.  He is a decorated military general, where he served for 40 years – the longest-served director of NSA (from 2005-2014) – and now has his own cyber-security company in the private sector, IronNet, referencing his nickname (Iron2) in Operation Desert Storm.  “The only way I’d get to be a CEO is if I started my own business,” Alexander said, “That’s the great thing about America!”  Dr. Drozdova actively participates with leading military, political and policy professionals in pinpointing and managing critical challenges and dangers in various security contexts.  Her research focuses on threat detection and subdual in the cyber world as well as encountering and dealing with terrorist networks.  In her opening remarks, she prefaced the talk with this statement: “As technology becomes more and more accessible worldwide, the higher the challenges.  The more dependent we are on the Internet and technology, the more vulnerable we are.”

General Alexander praised the people and mission of the military as the reason he stayed in 35 years longer than he had originally planned.  The employees of the NSA, he said, are good, self-sacrificial people as well.  In addition to leading the NSA, he was charged with directing the U.S. Cyber Command (“CyberCom”), which was part of the Department of Defense, its inception in 2010 to 2014.  Altogether, this is about 50,000 people.  He was paid for working 24 hours a day and “wanted to make sure he earned it” – in fact, he had a SCIF (Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility) installed in his basement and was able to continue his work protecting this country and its way of life after he got home.  “My job was to probe the areas where things are happening.  So if we had a crisis in Iraq, Korea or Boston, I would be probing those areas.”  He and members of his teams would be on the road a lot as well, being called to places like the White House or National Intelligence Agency once or twice a week.

“The first eight years was an easy ride,” Alexander reports.  No one would have been able to identify him as the director of the NSA until 2013.  “These are great, gifted people giving their all to make sure our nation was safe.  Then someone stole our information and gave it out.  But these people were still the same good people they were the night before that happened.”  Referring to Edward Snowden’s leaking classified information from the NSA to the media in the summer of 2013 only as “the Snowden thing” throughout the talk, Alexander discussed how to get through a crisis of such magnitude.  “In stress, people learn more when they laugh and forget more when they’re upset.  You want to forget bad memories and try to remember good ones.”

People will be watching their leaders and taking their cues for how to respond themselves from them, Alexander said.  When Dr. Drozdova inquires further about “the Snowden thing,” Alexander replied, “I think Snowden was a bit arrogant thinking he was the only one who understood these issues when we have 16 federal judges, Congress, etc. working on this stuff.”  Drozdova relayed that while Snowden was stuck at a Russian airport waiting for paperwork, Snowden’s lawyer asked him to read Crime and Punishment and “think about his actions.”  She asked Alexander what he would have Snowden read if given the chance.  Alexander answered, “The oath he took when he signed up to work for the NSA.”

Some people are confused about what the NSA actually does.  “What people don’t realize is that the NSA is a foreign-information collecting agency, we collect outside information and give it to the FBI.”  Drozdova asked, “Relative to what adversaries use, what are some advances by the U.S. and what is the difference about how the U.S. goes about intelligence?”  Alexander explained that before 2005, most of your long communications were analog, by 2008 they became totally digital, subtle but huge difference – “you could talk to anyone around the world and not sound like Donald Duck.”  What the U.S. was able to do in Iraq militarily was stunningly different: How do you find bad guys among the good people and stop them from blowing up our troops without taking a toll on innocent life?

Some are concerned about the conflict between safeguarding civil liberties and protecting our country and its allies. When accused of “listening to people’s phone calls” or “keeping files on people,” Alexander emphasized that there is no content, there are no “files” and wants to remind that “we have stopped twice as many terrorist attacks in Europe than in the U.S. and that the U.S. protects more countries than any other country in the world.  “We should know what the laws authorize – how do you tell our people what it is without telling the bad guys?”  Similarly, he explained, “We can’t tell you what we’re doing to protect you without telling the bad guys.”

Throughout the duration of his career, his faith was foundational.  “My faith played a great role every the step of the way, from the time I was in Iraq, knowing I was being supported from above, all the way through the Snowden thing.”  He now works at the forefront of cyber-security issues as a civilian and businessman.  “There are good people on the outside too,” he says.  “I set up a tech company to take on the problems we haven’t solved yet, like how to do you stop an attack on Target, Sony or Walmart, etc.?”  His parting advice is twofold: 1) “You’re going to read a whole lot in the papers.  Challenge the papers.  Challenge the facts.  What you’re going to need to do is distinguish fact from fiction.  The security of our nation depends on it.”  And 2) “In a crisis, do the right thing.”

But what is “the right thing,” especially since at points, it sounded like Alexander was saying that the NSA is indeed violating the constitutional rights of many American citizens and that it’s “for our own good?”  Similarly, what does Alexander mean by a “crisis” – a crisis for who?  Does 400,000 people in Africa dying annually of malnutrition-related causes constitute as a “crisis” worthy of “probing” intervention?  Beyond this, while there were discussions about parking spot numbers, why was there not a direct question about mass surveillance and the increasing prevalence of a police state seemingly stemming, at least in part, by the activities of the NSA?  Why was the discussion of Mr. Snowden not more nuanced and balanced, especially since Alexander’s own words were to “challenge the facts?”  Likewise, why was the portrayal of America as innocent protector of the world not more balanced, but rather void of any discussion about why it might be necessary to have to defend ourselves so vigorously?  Might there be problems with our “way of life?”  While it is commendable to avert terrorist attacks, might there be ways the U.S. is participating in violence and loss of innocent life in various parts of the world?  Is constant, hyper-vigilant self-preservation really the answer, given that the most oft-repeated refrain in our Holy Scriptures is “Do not be afraid?”

Posted: Thursday, April 16, 2015