Interview with NSA Director Lt. Gen. Keith B. Alexander

On Aug. 16, Siobhan Gorman, a correspondent in The Sun's Washington bureau, interviewed Lt. Gen. Keith B. Alexander, 53, the new director of the National Security Agency, in his headquarters office at Fort Meade. Here is a transcript of the interview as recorded, transcribed and edited by The Sun.

The Sun: Thank you so much for making the time. The first thing I was curious about was, I heard you held a town meeting and you told a few jokes. I was wondering how well they were received and how the town meeting went.

Alexander: The joke from the jokester's perspective, or from the people? From my perspective, they were great.

The Sun: What were they?

Alexander: Actually it wasn't jokes, it was how do you liven it up a little bit to show people that you can work hard and have a good time. And these people work hard and they've got to know they can laugh, and it's not going to be taken against them. So, you know, somebody asked me: "Who's your boss?" [That] was one of the jokes. They said, "You work for the Secretary of Defense. You work for Dr. [Stephen A.] Cambone. You work for General [Michael V.] Hayden [principal deputy director of national intelligence and former NSA director]. You work for Ambassador [John D.] Negroponte [director of national intelligence]. You work for the vice president. You work for the president. So who's your real boss?" And I said, "My wife." And that was just a joke, but ...

The Sun: Did they laugh?

Alexander: Oh, yeah.

The Sun: Politely, or did they really mean it?

Alexander: No, they really got a laugh out of that. They really did, and I think it loosened them up to show them you can mix humor and hard work together. And I think the other thing that I like to do is: If you're going to work hard and you're going to be making really tough decisions, you want to put people at ease, so they really feel that they can communicate. And if you don't put people at ease, they don't talk. And my experience is putting people at ease gets them to start talking back to you.

The Sun: When was it?

Alexander: We've had several. We've actually done three of them. My intent is to reach out to the work force and go out and meet everyone, so I've been doing that. I think the first one was on the second of August. We did one yesterday here, again, which would have made it the 15th. We did one at the FANX [the Friendship Annex, a training facility that houses the National Cryptologic School] last week, up in the Baltimore area. And so we've had three of them.

The Sun: Are the meetings targeting different sets of employees?

Alexander: Yeah, the first one was the whole work force. The second one was some of the seniors [senior executives] to explain to them what I expect of them in terms of the values we have, where I come from, what my values are, where I see things going, to try to put them in this mindset. You know, everybody comes in, and you hear all these different things. I hear that "A is mad at you and C is not." So you get all the rumors. I said, "We can start right now just putting the facts on the table."

Transformation, one of the issues that somebody brought up, is it going to stop? Are you going to go back six years? And the answer is: We're going forward. We're not going back. Some great work has been done on transformation with respect to Transformation 1.0 and 2.0.

General Hayden and I have sat down and discussed what is best for the agency and how we continue and where we go, and we corporately agreed that continuing on with transformation is what we've got to do.

The Sun: By that you mean the larger set of reforms that General Hayden set out?

Alexander: That's right. And so now what we're doing, there are some areas that he said, "If I were coming in, I would put a little more time in here and a little more time here," and some great insights that he gave me and some great support. So when talking to the work force, I gave them just that. I said, "Let's be real honest, I know you read in the paper that there's this big fight going on between, you know, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. Well, it's not true. I mean, they do discuss, but you know, let's look at what General Hayden's done: Six years here, you know, our country owes him a great debt of gratitude for working his whole career for the service of our nation, and what he did here is extraordinary."

That we would argue over points that the country wants us to argue, is something that is logical. What they don't put in the papers -- oh, by the way, they agree on 99 percent of what they discuss -- it's those kinds of issues that don't come out.

The Sun: Which points? What are the key points you agree upon?

Alexander: Transformation. Transformation and moving us forward; how we're doing on the collection; where the intelligence community has to go. I think the things they're doing in DNI are on the mark. We're a small player in that, but from our perspective, a very important player. And on all those, every issue that we've had on those, we've been in sync.

When you look at what are the priorities, when you look at it from a service perspective, or an agency perspective, of course there will be different perspectives of which goes first, the service or the agency, the chicken or the egg.

The Sun: When you say that, do you mean, how are you distinguishing between the service and the agency?

Alexander: Your military services, your Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines.

The Sun: Do you mean tactical versus national?

Alexander: That's one, tactical versus national; military versus civilian; defense versus offense. All three of those are here at NSA -- one of the things that makes this so powerful for our country, when you bring all three things together. And now it also means that you have to talk across and try to bridge a whole series of folks who have different objectives. Which goes first, this or this? The answer is: Well, we can do both. Someone says, "Are you spending too much time on your national mission at the deficit of your tactical? Are you spending too much on your tactical at the deficit of your national?" The answer is: It's a network. We're doing both, and we're doing them extremely well.

And that's what has impressed me the last two-and-a-half weeks here, going around here and seeing what great people they are and how good they do their job. How important it is. You know, we're a nation at war, and this is an agency at war, supporting the nation, our nation. And so when you think about that, they do it extremely well.

You go around and talk to all the people. We've gone to lunch a couple times where I go to the cafeteria and sit down with a number of folks, the co-op students. I think there were some bets going on: He won't do A, B or C. You know, he's not going to ever come into the cafeteria and just sit down with folks. Well, I'd already done that.

And the reason is that, a lot of these are what we call co-op students, these are students who are in universities who come in here like an intern. And you get to talk to them. What great talent we have in our country. And what a great opportunity the National Security Agency has to bring those folks in and show them what we do. So as they look at their future careers, perhaps the defense of our nation will be one of them. And we need good people like that. And you have friends out there, I know, that have done the same thing. So, it's just great.

The Sun: You were talking I think about transformation, I think you called it 1.1 and 1.2 ...

Alexander: 1.0 and 2.0

The Sun: 1.0 and 2.0. So you see your mission now as Transformation 2.0?

Alexander: Completing 2.0, which is what we're in the process of, which is some of our mission alignment, as we call it, or the build-out for the enterprise, how we continue to make this agency work as an extended enterprise.

The Sun: Linking up its various components?

Alexander: That's right, and the field locations and balancing the mission objectives and realigning that as we go along, which is a necessary part, and it also strengthens the network capabilities of us. It's also a way to ensure there's no single point of failure, so a lot of things [are] going on with that. And as we finish that, and we complete that in the transformation, we're going to go on to 3.0 and 4.0 and 5.0, and you know we will never be -- if we stopped at just doing typewriters, who was the company that did that? International Business Machines. Where would they be today? And so they've transformed out of necessity and we will have to, too. And so transformation is just part of what we have to do to remain relevant for the country.

The Sun: Now, is it a program that you're calling Transformation? And is that what General Hayden called it as well?

Alexander: It's actually the vision, what I'll give you is our strategic vision, over these next few years, is Transformation 2.0, and I can give you some insights to it. 1.0 was kind of going from a product to a capabilities basis. Instead of working our specific collection disciplines, each one on a different target area, and each doing a set of collection, analysis, and reporting, perhaps looking at, instead, doing a capabilities base, where we do collection in one area, analysis in one area. Does that make sense?

The Sun: So you were changing from the target focus to the kind of collection?

Alexander: Yes, and that's very powerful. And as we go into 2.0 we need to improve our collaboration between our missions in the intel community with customers. How do we reach out and how do we do the build-out on our mission alignment?

The Sun: So is 2.0 what you are initiating, or do you see that as ...

Alexander: I see that as continuing what General Hayden has had. So 2.0 is something that they started and we're continuing. And we will finish up and go into 3.0, which would be into the network and beyond, which is one of the ones that they were emerging as I got here, which is some of our roles in network operations and network warfare.

The Sun: What do you mean by network operations? What would be a good example?

Alexander: Computer network operations. The Internet. How do you now go against a network instead of go against a single target?

The Sun: I was going to ask you about that. Looking more broadly, I was talking with Admiral [Vice Admiral Mike] McConnell [former NSA director], who mentioned that you had really focused the Army, or had been working on refocusing the Army against more of a terrorist network-type enemy, and I was wondering what your thoughts are on how you start to get at that here?

Alexander: Well, I can jump back to the Army part first. It was great with General [Peter J.] Schoomaker, the chief [of staff of the Army], when he came in and was looking at Army transformation. One of the statements he made was really something that our country needs to think about, which I thought was superb: Our nation doesn't need an Army to be an Army that always did A, and you could say, make typewriters. We needed an Army for the defense of our country to defend it against those threats that would emerge.

And as those threats changed, we had to have an Army that changed to meet those threats. As you go from the conventional threats that the Soviet Union posed in the '80s to an unconventional set of threats that terrorists and other irregular warfare pose today, you need a different Army with different capabilities that can spread that whole spectrum of warfare.

The National Security Agency needs to do the same thing in our collection, our capability. Does that make sense?

The Sun: How do you do it?

Alexander: Transformation. The real issue is how do you do it efficiently. I think the way to do it efficiently is smaller steps, more rapidly done, rather than try to take one big jump and make it all the way across. So that was part of General Hayden's testimony [in April], too. I think he hit it right on the head. That's exactly what we need to do. We can spiral forward much of what we need to do. We have some great capabilities here.

The Sun: Getting at that Transformation 3.0 issue, what kinds of strategies can be employed to start focusing on networks as opposed to targets?

Alexander: Well, one is ... the volume of data that we collect is going to continue to grow. And so one of the things ... you look at is how do we now do analysis in a new environment?

And one of the things that the Army wrestled with too, is as [you] get more information to your analysts, they have to have the tools now to handle that greater volume of information. And so analysts are going to be taking on a different role. The information that you used to collect, now to get a relevant piece of information -- finding a tank division that was moving out there [points out the window], if you miss that, something's wrong. OK, so think about it. So now, collecting on a tank division was a little bit easier. Now here's the difference, find a terrorist in a city where there are 22 million people. That's a much more difficult, much more complex problem that requires all our agencies to work together. How do we do that?

And so you're now trying to find out information about information that gets into things like extensive markup language or XML tagging. How you handle data. How you visualize that data, and how we jump from industrial-age analysis to the information-age analysis that our country needs. And so I think what we're embarking on, what we have been doing, is jumping from one era to another. Does that make sense? And I think that is where our country needs us to go for our security.

The Sun: So do you then see the kind of change or transformation that you'd like to see happen here, is that somewhat akin to what you were doing at the Army? Because I know that there you were developing the Information Dominance Center and things like that. And that was sort of trying to work on the needle in the haystack problem. Is that analogous?

Alexander: It's analogous. Oh, by the way, you know who one of our benefactors was to do that, who helped fund that? [It] was NSA. That is kind of ironic, and for the good of both NSA and us was to get some of these tool sets to all the analysts, so we corporately did that.

Now I see this going a little bit further. So let me just jump you back into an Army analogy that I used when I was a G-2 [Army intelligence officer], of how you shared information. That went from a theater to a theater to a corps, corps to a division, division to a brigade, brigade to a battalion, battalion to a company, company to a platoon, and then you get the guys in the front end.

If you look at that and you think about the time that information flowed under the old way, that was the only way you could do it. And it starts back to the Civil War where you have that guy on that ridge with signal flags, and then it would go down to the next. ... OK, now think if you were flying in an airplane and we're passing you that information like that, when it was going from there to there to there [he traces along a map mounted under glass on his conference table]. You're over bad country all this way here, and then all of a sudden they say, "Oops. They got shot down but we were passing the message." Now jump forward. How do we do that for our soldiers and Marines and civilians in Iraq? They aren't part of the network. But they need to be.

So one of the big transformation agendas we have is how do you tie the people to the network so that information flows freely to those who need it for IED [improvised explosive device, or roadside bomb] information, for attack, for operations. Does that make sense?

So now what we did was we just turned that whole paradigm around in the Army and said, "Uh-oh. The guys who need it in first are the ones who are in peril most." That means turning around the way we think about information.

Now when you think about how we used to do it and how we're doing it, it's a similar thing, except for on the analytic part. So, much of that has been ongoing here within the agency. So those things you already see are going on. What we'll do is continue those. We'll bring in and continue to work those. But that transformation has already started. It is a logical step to do.

We will debate strongly and argue about: Do you use this extensive markup language or this one? And quite honestly, it's like: Do you go with this path to get to here, or this path? And they're probably equidistant. And half the people would be on one path and half would be on the other. Both of them are going to get you there. We'll have to debate those and make sure we get those right, but that's what we have to do.

The Sun: A lot of times leaders will set out a couple things they want to do early on, 30 to 60 days out or something like that. Do you have anything like that in mind?

Alexander: Before I jump on that, what we did is, we said -- I could come in and say, "I want to do A." And you know, the thought about me saying we're going to do A might be exactly the wrong thing to do. So what we corporately did is to say this: We've asked for a couple of panels to look at what we're doing in a couple of areas in our senior acquisition exec [procurement] area and across the board in transformation. So General Hayden and I worked a paper up -- the terms of reference, if you will, of what these NSA advisory boards would look at to help us get exactly where we are so everybody understands it.

So they come from the NSA advisory board. The key for that would be: What do they see as the key things that we have to finish to get the 2.0 done and then to start on to get the next phase and the next phase and the next phase? And so rather than me jump forward and dictate out of ignorance where we ought to go, I have talked with previous directors, four of them, including General Hayden, and a number of folks. And we're doing this panel at the same time while I go around and talk to all the people.

End of August, what we'll do is, we'll say, "OK, here's where we all think we are. Here's what we've got left to do. Everybody agrees with that. OK, let's do these things in these priorities. And here's where we have got to get to for the security of our nation." And put that out as the vision as we evolve into 3.0. So that's the way we'll do it, and it will be more of a team effort than one person dictating it. And there are, if you think about that, we have great talent here, we ought to use it.

So that would be my approach, to bring everybody in, kind of say, "OK, what do you think, what do you think, what do you think?"

Just as an aside, some of the students that we get here for the summer, the co-op students. I told you I sat down at lunch with them.

You ask them questions like this. It's kind of interesting some of the comments you get back. It really is. I had one say, "You know, if you put me in charge of A," -- he's been here one year, 23 years old, brilliant -- "you know, I really understand this. If you put me in charge of this, we could fix it."

So, you know, there's youth and then experience will come. But think about the capabilities of what we can do. So he's probably got some good ideas. And you know, the younger generation understands computers perhaps better than many in -- and not my generation, of course, I'm the same as the younger -- but the other generation. So there is that. What we've got to do is use both, and we've got to communicate across those generation gaps.

The Sun: Actually, that leads to one of the things I wanted to ask you about. The NSA set out to hire 7,500 people I guess last fall. Is that something you are planning to continue? How do you approach that?

Alexander: I don't know about numbers. Let me tell you about the way we go about hiring and the way we're attracting youth. There's a great program here, the director's summer program, which brings together some of the best crypto-mathematic kids in the nation here. They have a clearance. They work on classified projects and they do great things. They have senior mentors. But what it does, it helps them see how important the work that we're doing is. And you know what? When they leave here -- I talked to a bunch of them -- I would tell you that 60 to 75 percent of those that came will come back for a job here.

Think how good that is for our country. These are the top kids in our nation. They'll come here to work. The reason is they find it challenging, exhilarating, and they know it's important. And what we've got to do is continue to attract that, because many of these kids, as you know, could go out and make more money someplace else. But think of how good that will be for our country. And they enjoy it. So we've got to make it fun. We've got to make it rewarding. We've got to come across with the philosophy that, as they have, that you know the people. You like the people that you work with.

There's a great book, "Monday Morning Leadership" [by David Cottrell], that [says] people don't quit jobs, they don't go for money. People quit people first. Everything that we're all about, everything that we are here, we can talk all our systems that we're doing, we talk about all the technology, but the core of what we are is people.

The Sun: Are you going to continue with that hiring program?

Alexander: Oh, absolutely. Now, I just don't know the numbers. You asked the numbers. We are continuing. I just don't know where we are in the hiring process, and where we'd be, but I think that will continue to grow and I know each year we grow more, and that we'll continue to hire. I just don't know that it's 7,500.

Donald Weber [NSA public affairs officer]: It's over a period of five years until 2008.

Alexander: Yeah, I think what you're seeing is a gradual increase that will lead to about 7,500 over a five-year period.

The Sun: That's just what I was asking about. I was told the Cole bombing has, had really influenced your thinking early on, vis-a-vis regard to terrorism, particularly in terms of setting up the Information Dominance Center and things like that. So, I wanted to get a little bit of your ...

Alexander: I was the CENTCOM [Central Command] J-2 [intelligence director] at the Cole bombing and had an opportunity. General [Tommy] Franks was the CENTCOM commander, and I really enjoyed working for General Franks, who could be a hard person, oh, by the way. But I had both a personal and professional relationship and had known him for years. The question that came up in the Cole bombing is almost a breaking [point] in warfare, from going after what I'll call the old form of warfare to now we're going after terrorists. How do you now change the intelligence system to do that?

We had a great meeting up here after the congressional testimony in October of 2000, that all of the intel community, including NSA and others, came to say: What do we need to do that's different?

That did shape a lot of how I thought and how I still think about where we're going. And it was driven by the analysts who were working the problem. Why don't we have information on this, and how do we collect it? What does that mean for analysis? What does that mean about meta-data? All this information that's coming in, it really does shape and it starts to say, hmmm, this is a new era. You probably knew about it before [this], called the Information Age, about how you're dealing with all that. And it did, the USS Cole was a significant event.

And so I left CENTCOM with one of the missions that General Franks and General [Hugh] Shelton [chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] and others had given us, which was: How do you now start building the capability in the community to handle data problems like that? Hence, the Information Dominance Center. Does that make sense?

The Sun: I did want to ask you about one thing because it came up as I was talking with people about why it was that your nomination got held up for a while. And the two reasons that were given to me, and I wanted to give you the opportunity to speak about it was: one, General Hayden pushing back, and two, members' [of Congress] concerns about Abu Ghraib ...

Alexander: Or three.

The Sun: What?

Alexander: Or three.

The Sun: What was three?

Alexander: The bureaucracy. First, I can help dispel parts of that, and there are questions about Abu Ghraib, and we can talk about that. But first, let's go into General Hayden. Just the opposite. General Hayden was one of the folks that pushed it [the nomination]. While it was kind of ironic that I think the decision in my office call with Ambassador Negroponte actually went on in early May.

So the decision had already been made, and General Hayden was very supportive from May on. It wasn't announced until the end of June. That was just a combination of how it goes through the bureaucracy -- the Army and the Pentagon -- to get out. It came out the 29th or 30th of June. I was confirmed four weeks later. When you look at the confirmation process, that's not bad. Look at some of the judges.

OK, now, there were questions about Abu Ghraib that every logical person should ask, because as a soldier and an intel officer, one of my duties was to help present to Congress how we do interrogations in other forums. Now, as you may know, you're familiar with Goldwater-Nichols [a 1986 law reorganizing the Defense Department], and one of the things people, of course, lose sight of is what Goldwater-Nichols does to the service staff versus the combatant commanders. In this regard, the service staffs do not have the authority for the operations. The conduct of operations in Iraq doesn't fall under the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines. It falls under combatant commander. And we provide the soldiers and the equipment, the resources to them.

Now, one of the questions that one of the senior senators asked me was, had we gone too far on Goldwater-Nichols? My answer is, we haven't gone too far, but there are some things that we need to look at that we now need to look at with what is the role of the services in providing capability to the combatant command, especially for building architectures and, perhaps, intel oversight.

A point of reference is when General [Ricardo S.] Sanchez [commander of U.S. forces in Iraq] said, "I'm going to need somebody to investigate the intel part of this." It was us who recommended, hmmm, we ought to get the best investigator that we know. And so my recommendation was the best officer I knew to do that was General [George R.] Fay. The reason was that, while in his civilian job, he ran claims and stuff for Chubb Insurance. He's the best investigator I know, he really is.

So we said, "If you want the best, this is the best guy." So we helped work that. So the question was: What's your role in that? Our role was more explaining how the Army operates in terms of doctrine and to help the congressional members understand what did go on and what happened as we went through the series of investigations. But as a service intel officer, I had no direct responsibility in the operations.

But I did have, in terms of the lessons learned, making sure that the problems that we had got integrated back into training our folks. And I think all the members of Congress that I talked to, those were the kinds of questions, and once they understood that, it was not a big issue. Really, what they wanted to do was to make sure they did their part correct in asking those questions. So that's what went on in between the end of June and the end of July. Does that make sense?

The Sun: That, that sort of back-and-forth with members of Congress ...

Alexander: And it actually wasn't as much back-and-forth as, oh, by the way, remember Congress is also doing a whole series of other things. They were trying to get the Defense department bill. As important as I really think I am, how many people did they have to go up and get through, and how many could they get through?

What I would say is, look at all the people they had to get through. They had a bunch to get through, including myself and General [Ronald L.] Burgess [nominated for a position at the National Intelligence Directorate], who they said we have to check out. But they're checking everybody out now. And when they did that, OK, so our part went through pretty easy. There are others that are still being looked at for all different sorts of things you'll see going on. Oh, and we've got to get the Defense authorization bill and, oh, we've got to get this. So there's an awful lot going on in Congress. Does that make sense?

The Sun: What do you do for fun?

Alexander: What do I do for fun? ... I play golf. I like to play golf.

The Sun: I heard you make your own golf clubs. How do you do that?

Alexander: I do. You can buy parts, and you just glue them together. You get tape and bailing wire. Actually you can make some good ones. I did that for some of our allies, you know, for working with other countries, especially Korea and Japan and those that like to play golf. Well, we made these great drivers, you can make them really cheap, and we gave them to our friends. And I can knock the ball a long way with those. Though, I was going to say, you know, we're in August. This year, I've gotten to play golf three times.

The Sun: That says something about how busy you are ...

Alexander: Yeah.

The Sun: What's your average day like in terms of the time and such that you're putting in?

Weber: Just to note, we're over, so this is probably the last question.

Alexander: I normally get up at 5, and my wife and I go work out, because she doesn't want me to turn into a beach ball. I get home, say, about six, eat breakfast and come into work about 6:45, and I leave work about two in the afternoon [laughs], I, and watching Laura [Roeding, an aide, present for the interview], she's thinking, I'm missing something here. I like to leave by seven. I'd like to leave by seven. I say we're pretty good about that, though not always. Sometimes it goes a little bit later.

I do work weekends, but I don't mind working weekends, especially if it's just me because I don't want other people to feel like they have to come in. It gives me an opportunity to read all the information that I had and catch up. So, that's about how it goes. We've got to run to another meeting.