New head of NSA emphasizes coordination among agencies

Alexander says he started by listening to employees

People more key than technology

August 17, 2005|By Siobhan Gorman | Siobhan Gorman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

The new head of the National Security Agency, Lt. Gen. Keith B. Alexander, said yesterday that he wants to reshape the spy agency into a more effective weapon for countering the threat posed by Islamic extremist networks around the world.

Alexander, who has not spoken publicly about his plans for the sprawling signals-intelligence operation, said he intends to focus on improving coordination between his agency and key government officials.

"You know, we're a nation at war, and this is an agency supporting the nation," he told The Sun during a 35-minute interview in his eighth-floor office in the mirrored NSA headquarters building at Fort Meade.

Since arriving this month, Alexander has taken a notably different approach from the last person to assume the helm of an intelligence agency: CIA Director Porter J. Goss, who encountered considerable resistance from insiders when he began making changes immediately after taking over.

Alexander, 53, launched a listening tour of his agency of 32,000 employees, soliciting feedback and ideas - an approach that former colleagues say he often employed in his Army posts. His previous job, which he left on July 29, was as head of Army intelligence.

The NSA, sometimes described as a giant, computerized ear in the sky, gathers billions of bits of communications from a vast array of sources around the globe. But modernizing the agency, according to Alexander, depends on people more than technology.

In town-hall meetings, Alexander has been fielding questions from agency workers. The one he's quickest to answer: Is he going to take the NSA back to the way it was six years ago, before his predecessor began scrapping the agency's Cold War-style organization?

"The answer is: We're going forward; we're not going back," Alexander said emphatically.

But Alexander said he wants to get a sense of where the NSA is first, "rather than have me jump forward and dictate out of ignorance." He adds, "It will be more of a team effort."

He has paid periodic visits to the NSA cafeteria to check the pulse of those doing the agency's work. "The core of what we are is people," he said, not techno-gadgets.

He has even been chatting with summer interns for "good ideas" because "the younger generation understands computers perhaps better" than agency veterans, he said.

Alexander has also ordered reviews of the NSA's contracting process and various modernization programs at the agency. He has met with four former NSA directors, including his predecessor, Lt. Gen. Michael V. Hayden, now No. 2 to the Director of National Intelligence, the country's new spy chief.

According to two former colleagues who know them, Hayden and Alexander were sometimes at odds when Alexander was heading Army intelligence and Hayden was running NSA.

But Alexander said he and Hayden "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."

Hayden's leadership of NSA represented a sharp break from the past, in which the agency's mere existence was considered a secret. Hayden cracked open the agency's doors with a public-relations campaign designed to justify budget increases and improve the agency's image.

Alexander likens NSA's course to IBM's as typewriters gave way to computers.

"They transformed out of necessity, and we will have to, too," he said. "Transformation is just what we have to do to remain relevant for the country."

Transformation can take many forms, however, and as Alexander finishes up what he calls "Transformation 2.0" of the reforms Hayden laid out, he will be in a position to shape the next phase, which he calls "Transformation 3.0."

In the second phase, which Alexander said will take a few more years to complete, NSA is attempting to improve information-sharing with other intelligence agencies.

The next phase will focus on managing the vast flow of information that NSA intercepts through various types of eavesdropping and figuring out what bits of data will help the country combat its ever-changing adversaries.

Because many of those adversaries communicate via the Internet and cell phones, the NSA needs collection techniques that better target those. As part of the next phase, Alexander will be evaluating whether the NSA's current array of equipment is up to the task.

It also means that analysts take on a different role: Plucking gems of information from mounds of informational debris and linking them with gems other analysts find in unrelated areas.

Doing that right requires changes in how the NSA visualizes and handles data, he said. And the questions get as technical as how should information be tagged electronically to best be exploited by analysts.

Alexander said these are just the types of issues he faced in the Army, when he realized that the people who needed intelligence the most were always the last to learn it - soldiers on the ground.

He worked at the Army to make intelligence more relevant to those who needed it most. He'll do that at NSA, he said.

Alexander acknowledged that there will be debates over how to accomplish these goals. They might well be with those above him, including Hayden.

He likened it to debating different paths to the same end.

"They're probably equidistant, and half the people would be on one path, and half would be on the other," he said. "Both of them are going to get you there. We'll have to debate and make sure we get those right."

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