You might think that Gen. Keith Alexander, the director of the National Security Agency, would be looking to lower his agency's profile after a stream of embarrassing leaks about its surveillance activities. Instead, he's doubling down, asking for new powers to secure the U.S. financial industry -- and using some rather suspect arguments to support his demands.
In public remarks in Washington on Tuesday, Alexander said that eventually, and likely in the midst of a crisis, policymakers will have to decide under what conditions the NSA can take action to stop a major cyberattack on U.S. businesses or critical sectors of the economy.
"That's where we're going to end up at some point," he said. Using the financial services sector as an example, Alexander said, "You have to have the rules set up so you can defend Wall Street."
Drawing an analogy to how the military detects an incoming missile with radar and other sensors, Alexander imagined the NSA being able to spot "a cyberpacket that's about to destroy Wall Street." In an ideal world, he said, the agency would be getting real-time information from the banks themselves, as well as from the NSA's traditional channels of intelligence, and have the power to take action before a cyberattack caused major damage.
The analogy was a stretch.
For starters, what's a "cyberpacket"? Presumably Alexander meant a sophisticated computer worm or virus designed to disrupt a computer or destroy the data inside it. (Maybe like the one his agency reportedly helped design to destroy centrifuges in an Iranian nuclear facility.) But the idea that a single, tiny packet could wipe out Wall Street is laughable. That's like saying a paintball can take out a tank.
Could a hacker really take out Wall Street in one fell cyberswoop? Current and former intelligence officials have warned that a determined adversary could manipulate or erase electronic data in the computers of banks, clearinghouses, or stock exchanges, undermining confidence in the banking system and triggering a nationwide economic panic. The damage might be severe, but presumably temporary.
Alexander seemed to suggest it would be permanent or long-lasting. The general is one of the most technologically knowledgeable officials in the intelligence community. So should we conclude that Wall Street really is at risk of a catastrophic cyberattack? Or that Alexander is engaging in a little old-fashioned fear-mongering to drum up support for his policies?
Under current authorities, Alexander said, the NSA has permission to act to defend networks. But any offensive actions must be approved by the secretary of defense and the president. Alexander didn't explicitly call for new offensive authorities. But if U.S. banks were under a major cyberattack, the NSA would almost certainly have to take some offensive action to repel it, such as trying to shut down the source of the attack.
If the NSA is only allowed to act after an attack has occurred, "that doesn't make sense," Alexander said. "So we need that capability" to act before the damage is done.
Alexander spoke in an onstage interview hosted by Politico and Raytheon, the defense and intelligence contractor.
This is not the first time Alexander has proposed using the NSA to beef up financial security in the United States. Two years ago, in a meeting with financial company executives, Alexander proposed a more aggressive form of NSA-led defense, in which the agency would install monitoring equipment on the networks of banks. The executives resisted that proposal, which they felt overstepped the NSA's legal authorities and might violate the U.S. Constitution's ban on warrantless surveillance if the monitoring were performed without a court order.
In his remarks on Tuesday, Alexander also said that a pilot program to share information about malware and malicious hackers with defense contractors, so that they can better defend themselves against cyberintrusions, should be expanded to other critical industries. The Defense Industrial Base initiative is led by the Homeland Security Department, but most of the threat reporting and analysis that's given to companies comes from the NSA.
"I would expand it far beyond" the defense industrial base, Alexander said, to include the main Internet service providers that carry much of the nation's Internet traffic.
Alexander acknowledged that the NSA had lost some public trust and that it might not be easy to persuade lawmakers that the agency's powers should be expanded, rather than curtailed. But he repeated earlier statements, made in public and before Congress, that public reaction to the NSA's surveillance mission is based on "sensationalized" and misinformed press accounts of NSA documents leaked by former contractor Edward Snowden.
Alexander said he is open to some modifications of existing surveillance programs, particularly one that collects all telephone records in the United States and stores them at the NSA for up to five years. Alexander said he would be comfortable storing the data somewhere else or requiring more reports on how the data is used, but that the NSA's surveillance work should not end. "I think the authorities should stay intact," he said.
Alexander noted that the NSA is hiring for a new official to oversee privacy and civil liberties matters and that 67 people have applied for it. But he worried that the continuing government shutdown, which has caught federal employees in the middle of a political fight, might deter people from coming to work for the government.
"The most damage is to the morale of the [NSA] workforce," Alexander said of the shutdown. The general extolled the expertise and dedication of NSA employees and said it is unfair to ask people living paycheck to paycheck to forgo their salary indefinitely. "We're making it hard for them to stay with the government, and that's wrong. That's absolutely wrong," Alexander said.
And, he cautioned, future NSA recruits may be taking note. "How do you get good people to come into government when you treat them like that?" Alexander asked.
Despite the dire mood in Washington, Alexander managed some levity. When questions shifted from the shutdown to NSA leaker Edward Snowden, the general quipped, "Shutdown Snowden? I'm with you on that one."
Mark Wilson / Getty Images News
John Reed reports on the frontiers of cyber war and the latest in military technology for Killer Apps.