The Cowboy of the NSA: Inside Gen. Keith Alexander’s all-out, barely-legal drive to build the ultimate spy machine (Foreign Policy):
Alexander was fond of building charts that showed how a suspected terrorist was connected to a much broader network of people via his communications or the contacts in his phone or email account.
“He had all these diagrams showing how this guy was connected to that guy and to that guy,” says a former NSA official who heard Alexander give briefings on the floor of the Information Dominance Center. “Some of my colleagues and I were skeptical. Later, we had a chance to review the information. It turns out that all [that] those guys were connected to were pizza shops.”
A retired military officer who worked with Alexander also describes a “massive network chart” that was purportedly about al Qaeda and its connections in Afghanistan. Upon closer examination, the retired officer says, “We found there was no data behind the links. No verifiable sources. We later found out that a quarter of the guys named on the chart had already been killed in Afghanistan.”
Those network charts have become more massive now that Alexander is running the NSA. When analysts try to determine if a particular person is engaged in terrorist activity, they may look at the communications of people who are as many as three steps, or “hops,” removed from the original target. This means that even when the NSA is focused on just one individual, the number of people who are being caught up in the agency’s electronic nets could easily be in the tens of millions.
We could debate that “barely legal” part. But then again, like the Daily Show said way back at the beginning of this long strange trip, the biggest scandal might be that all this spying is in fact legal.