NSA director poised to update spy agency

Alexander plans for leap to the `information age'

August 22, 2005|By Siobhan Gorman | Siobhan Gorman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

The National Security Agency's new director, Lt. Gen. Keith B. Alexander, comes to his job at a defining moment: Modernize the NSA to confront stateless extremist threats, or face post-9/11 obsolescence.

To survive, the agency must leap from the "industrial age" to the "information age," as Alexander put it in an interview at his Fort Meade office last week. "That is where our country needs us to go for our security."

In three decades as a military man, most recently as the Army's intelligence chief, Alexander built a reputation as an aggressive problem-solver who can skillfully navigate bureaucratic roadblocks.

Those attributes might be exactly what the NSA needs now, but they have also led Alexander to step on some territory-conscious toes, threatening - at least for a time - his prospects for his current post.

"His modus operandi is to grab a pet project or a focus, and really drive it," said Collin Agee, the Army's director for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance integration.

With his large-lens glasses, compact frame and affable demeanor, Alexander appears to be a sort of hybrid: part-math teacher and part-wrestler, which isn't too far off for a soldier turned cybergeek spy.

He graduated in the top 10 percent of his class at West Point but never made a show of his intellectual capacity.

"You would never peg him to say, `You know, this is one of the smartest guys in our class,'" said Pat McBrayer, a classmate who runs a health care company in Pennsylvania. "He didn't really put on airs."

More recently, Alexander, 53, has become a quick study on the new and different dangers that terrorists pose to America.

He was directing intelligence at the U.S. Central Command in 2000, responsible for the Middle East, when the USS Cole was bombed in Yemen, killing 17 U.S. sailors and wounding more than 40.

To Alexander, the suicide bombing of the Cole represented a break point, "from going after what I'll call the old form of warfare to now we're going after terrorists," he said.

That's the shift in consciousness he says he wants to infuse at the NSA, which spent decades resting on its reputation as a cutting-edge eavesdropping shop while the Internet and cell phones passed it by. Online and cellular communications are harder to track because the user's identity is easier to mask.

`State of transition'

But change comes slowly at the nation's largest intelligence agency.

"NSA is still in a state of transition from a Cold War structure and approach to this new world we face - this new world of greater utilization of intelligence and information systems," said retired Vice Adm. Mike McConnell, who ran the NSA in the mid-1990s.

Analysts say the NSA made progress under Alexander's predecessor, Gen. Michael V. Hayden, but much more needs to be done.

"What seems to have befuddled a number of [Alexander's] predecessors is the arcane culture of the institution," said Jim Wolbarsht, a management consultant who was part of an external review team commissioned by Hayden.

Modernization projects with names such as Groundbreaker and Trailblazer, geared toward improving the agency's internal computer networks and eavesdropping equipment, are years behind schedule and hundreds of millions of dollars over budget.

"I think Keith is going to go in, and he's going to change a few things that Mike Hayden put into place, but that is the prerogative that every director has," said retired Lt. Gen. Robert Noonan Jr.

"It is not going to be business as usual, I guarantee you that," he said.

Hosting a visitor in his new top-floor corner office, already filled with family pictures, Alexander said he plans to modernize the NSA in "smaller steps, more rapidly done, rather than try to take one big jump and make it all the way across."

Heir apparent

For months, Alexander had been widely considered by Congress members and executive branch officials to be Hayden's heir apparent. But he was not Hayden's choice. Several former colleagues said the two men had clashed periodically.

For example, according to one government official who spoke on condition of anonymity, Hayden resisted Alexander's efforts to use the Army's Information Dominance Center to channel data from throughout the intelligence community to soldiers and officers in the field. Hayden was reluctant to contribute to a project for which the NSA was not receiving credit, said a person familiar with the two men's relationship.

Ultimately, Alexander prevailed, in part by gaining the support of key Bush administration officials, such as Stephen A. Cambone, a top intelligence adviser to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

"Hayden's staff [at the NSA] felt very threatened by what the Army was doing," said a former government official familiar with Alexander and Hayden's relationship, while Alexander "got sick and tired of being told to move slower."

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