A study in Hubris: the shenanigans of one Keith Alexander (also starring James Clapper and the Senate Intelligence Committee)

A week in the life of…

So, Keith Alexander, huh? Did you hear what he got up to this week?

No? I’ll tell you. He’s been very busy. He and James Clapper, the chief of US national security appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday, urging lawmakers to not significantly curb NSA surveillance powers. At this hearing, Mr Alexander artfully clumsily “sidestepped questions […] from […] senator [Ron Wyden] about whether the NSA has ever used Americans cellphone signals to collect information on their whereabouts that would allow tracking of the movements of individual callers.

Fortunately (at least it is something) senator Wyden wasn’t fooled, no matter the pains Mr Alexander (and Mr Clapper) took to blame “the media for its publication of Snowden’s disclosures” which they find “misleading.” Interestingly, Mr Alexander, much like several senators who criticized the media as well, failed to give any concrete examples of the news organisations that had reported misleading information or the ways in which they did so. He also said – again – that it is “in the nation’s best interest” to collect the phone records of all Americans. So really no surprises there.

However, Mr Alexander is undoubtedly aware of “the wider tension that has grown between the public and the U.S. intelligence community, following disclosures by Edward Snowden” because what he also did – in response to a proposal made by a “bipartisan group of four senators, including Ron Wyden, [that called for] legislation to end […] bulk collections” of US telephone data – was turn to… wait for it… the public (!) to ask for their help. Who would have thought? Last time I looked, most of us were adversaries in some way or other or at least guilty until proven innocent. Ah, these fickle times.

Whatever his personal views on all of us may be, Mr Alexander implored us – the public – to “understand why [the NSA] need [their surveillance] tools,” and to make the picture perfect, he and and NSA deputy director John Inglis sent a letter to the families of their employees “in an effort to “reassure” relatives about the agency’s work.” Is that a snort I hear from you? Because that’s how I reacted. I didn’t laugh for long though. Read on, I dare you.

Letters to the family

“Some media outlets”, the letter states, “have sensationalized the leaks to the press in a way that has called into question our motives and wrongly cast doubt on the integrity and commitment of the extraordinary people who work here at NSA/CSS—your loved one(s).”

Errr…m? Surely, I cannot be the only one who finds this – and several other of Mr Alexander’s utterances – not just ridiculous but downright shameless. To deliberately invoke people’s concern for and appreciation of “their loved one(s)”, not to mention the family rhetoric (although, ironically, many people probably don’t trust their extended families as far as they can throw them, which actually fits the NSA), to highlight the alleged integrity of the NSA and put it outside the realm of criticism (these are your loved ones working here – are you questioning their motives and doubting their integrity and commitment?) is bad enough.

But get this: in his address to the public Mr Alexander then invoked the Westgate mall massacre in Nairobi, saying: “If you take those [surveillance powers] away, think about the last week and what will happen in the future. If you think it’s bad now, wait until you get some of those things that happened in Nairobi.” 

Wow. What?! Frankly, I am just about speechless at how wrong this is on how many levels.

I mean, how tasteless is it to use this terrible tragedy and, yes, act of unbelievable brutality and terrorism, to – once again – repeat the tedious litany of why the NSA needs its powers? I would suggest Mr Alexander use his agency’s formidable mobile phone tracking powers (which he says they aren’t using) to relocate his sense of propriety.

To try and capitalize on something so terrible to justify the blatant abuses committed by his agency – abuses about which both Mr Alexander and Mr Clapper have lied to the same Congress they are now asking to reaffirm the NSA’s powers – wow! If anyone needed any further proof that power has gone to Mr Alexander’s head, here it is. What was it Yochai Benkler wrote two weeks ago? Oh yes: “Serious people with grave expressions will argue that if we do not ruthlessly expand our intelligence capabilities, we will suffer terrorism and defeat. Whatever minor tweaks may be necessary, the argument goes, the core of the operation is absolutely necessary and people will die if we falter.”

And Mr Benkler’s “question [still] remains [and is more pressing than ever]: how much of what we have is really necessary and effective, and how much is bureaucratic bloat resulting in the all-to-familiar dynamics of organizational self-aggrandizement and expansionism?” Judging by Mr Alexander’s appropriation of someone else’s tragedy to underscore his own argument I’d say little effectiveness but a lot of bloat.


A case of Hubris?

Funnily enough, on the same Thursday that Messrs Alexander and Clapper appeared before the Committee, I read about some interesting research into something called Hubris personality disorder.

Here is what this is:

“Hubris is commonly associated with a loss of contact with reality and an overestimation of one’s own competence, accomplishments or capabilities. It is characterised by a pattern of exuberant self-confidence, recklessness and contempt for others, and is most particularly recognised in subjects holding positions of significant power.”

Intrigued? So was I. Note that “[f]ourteen clinical symptoms of Hubris syndrome have been described” and that “[s]ubjects demonstrating at least three of these could be diagnosed with the disorder.”

Let’s have a look at how many of these symptoms we can identify in the present case (spoiler: more than three). They include:

“A narcissistic propensity to see [the] world primarily as an arena in which to exercise power and seek glory”

Remember Alexander’s “collect it all” approach to surveillance?

“A messianic manner of talking about current activities and a tendency to exaltation.”

Mr Alexander’s derogatory suggestion that the “United States is fortunate to be able to have “esoteric” discussions because the NSA and other agencies are effective in stopping terrorists” speaks for itself, doesn’t it? Not only does he believe that the NSA is keeping everyone safe (in a messianic manner of speaking) – he also displays the kind of contempt that is another symptom of Hubris: thanks to his agency, the rest of us are still able to have our quaint little esoteric discussions about whether things like dragnet collection of telephone metadata are constitutional or not, when really we should all be relinquishing our civil liberties gratefully in the face of the terrible terrorist threat that haunts us everywhere we go. An unattended item of luggage! Run for your lives!

“Excessive confidence in the individual’s own judgement and contempt for the advice or criticism of others.”

Mr Alexander is exceedingly critical contemptuous of media reporting of the Snowden material but his own acceptance of criticism by the public or, in fact, members of Congress goes little further than to admit that “recent disclosures were likely to impact public perceptions of the NSA and “change how [the agency] operate[s]” – only to then stress again that “any diminution of the intelligence community’s capabilities risk[…] terrorist attacks on US territory.”

“Exaggerated self-belief, bordering on a sense of omnipotence, in what they personally can achieve.”

I don’t think I need to mention Mr Alexander’s desire to “collect it all” again but can I just remind everyone that the man is also quite smitten with the Star Trek-type war room at the heart of the so-called Information Dominance Centre? I can tell you now that it will take me a while longer to digest that particular piece of information. It does nothing to ease my mind either that the bridge of the Enterprise war room was commissioned before Alexander arrived; clearly, this indicates he is not the only one within the organisation with a disturbing/disturbed mind-set.

“A belief that, rather than being accountable to the mundane court of colleagues or public opinion, the court to which they answer is: History or God.”

Arguably, it’s not certain that Mr Alexander even believes himself to be accountable to God or History. Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger correctly reminds us that “[i]n history, all the precedents [that involved an “infrastructure for total surveillance”] are unhappy.” Considering this and how much difference it has made to Mr Alexander’s outlook so far (none whatsoever, it seems) it may be fair to assume that Mr Alexander does not consider himself or the NSA accountable to History. 

“A tendency to allow their ‘broad vision’ about the moral rectitude of a proposed course to obviate the need to consider practicality, cost or outcomes”.

There are several examples of this. Obviously, the way in which data is collected, stored and (ab)used raises questions of both practicality and outcomes, and recent revelations about the US government’s Black Budget have given us all a good idea about the cost of surveillance as well. And this is just the material cost. The cost to privacy and civil liberties, not to mention the impact on the lives of the people who expose these and similar practices are obviously not included.

“Hubristic incompetence, where things go wrong because too much self-confidence has led the leader not to worry about the nuts and bolts of policy.” 

Well, the nuts and bolts of policy seem to be something Mr Alexander only worries about when they threaten to restrict his agency’s powers. And we have all been witnesses to a fair bit of Hubristic incompetence for over three months now, haven’t we?

David Owen and Jonathan Davidson examined Hubris personality disorder in political leaders. In their paper on the subject, they express their belief “that extreme hubristic behaviour is a syndrome, constituting a cluster of features (‘symptoms’) evoked by a specific trigger (power) […]. ‘Hubris syndrome’ is seen as an acquired condition, and therefore different from most personality disorders which are traditionally seen as persistent throughout adulthood. The key concept is that hubris syndrome is a disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years and with minimal constraint on the leader.”

Now, considering the practically unrestrained power the NSA has held over the past years (they have undermined the internet, for goodness’ sake) and the success they claim to have in foiling terrorist attacks (which has been challenged), I am starting to find James Godale’s comments in the Guardian which call for a complete reform of NSA culture and for the resignation of Messrs Alexander and Clapper to be fired increasingly appealing. Especially when you consider that Alexander and Clapper both lied to Congress. Note also what Godale writes about the reforms proposed by president Obama in the wake of the Snowden revelations: “[Obama] would provide that the Fisa court have adversarial representation (sorely needed); the NSA would expose to the public what it was doing on its website (laughable); the NSA hire a civil rights advocate (inconsequential); and Congress should amend section 215 of the Patriot Act (good idea); and lastly, [Obama] would appoint experts to examine NSA practices.” Sadly, “[t]he latter idea [although] on its face […] be a reasonable one […] does not seem to be going anywhere thus far” because the appointed experts are all intelligence insiders and, mostly, advocates.


Someone get the NSA a lexicon!

To return to the statements given by Messrs Alexander and Clapper in which they reassure the public that while the spooks “collect U.S. bulk records, they do not listen in on individual Americans’ phone calls or read their emails without a court order” – who is still fooled by those?

As a reminder, this is nothing but semantics: Jameel Jaffer and Brett Max Kaufman have compiled a brilliant lexicon of NSA speech. In it, they make it clear that “[n]o one should be reassured by [assurances that] NSA’s surveillance activities are “targeted” not at Americans but at foreigners outside the United States. […] [E]ven if one is indifferent to the NSA’s invasion of foreigners’ privacy, the surveillance of those foreigners involves the acquisition of Americans’ communications with those foreigners. The spying may be “targeted” at foreigners, but it vacuums up thousands of Americans’ phone calls and emails.” I suggest you read Jaffer and Kaufmann’s lexicon in full – it is quite informative.

And of course another important fact that needs to be considered here. The spooks may be saying that they are not reading your emails (if you are an American citizen on American soil) but the metadata gathered through bulk record collection is even more interesting than the actual content – and its potential use is even more frightening. I myself have commented on that at length but by way of a quick recap: “metadata is extremely revealing; investigators mining it might be able to infer whether we have an illness or an addiction, what our religious affiliations and political activities are, and so on.

As for the meaning behind the NSA jargon, Jennifer Stisa Grannick and Christopher Jon Sprigman published an op-ed in the NY Times in June that deals with precisely this “torturing [of] the English language” (in that case by Mr Clapper) – it also explains in detail why the then revealed Verizon orders and the PRISM programme are anything but constitutional.

And while we’re on the subject of legality, there are more than serious doubts about the so-called oversight afforded by both Congress and the (still secret!) FISA court. Technically the NSA needs a FISA court order to snoop around the communication of American citizens but that really is little more than a technicality. This, too, has been discussed at length but as one example do consider what Jennifer Stisa Grannick writes about the specifics of data queries as approved by the FISA court:

“[A]n approved single query means the analyst can conduct up to a three-hop search through Americans’ phone records. Assuming each individual has only 40 unique contacts, this means 64,000 records accessed per query.  Once the query is conducted, the Primary Order allows the NSA to combine the results for future, unrestricted analysis in something called “the corporate store”.  If my numbers above are right, 19 million phone records went into the corporate store in 2012 alone.  Thus, whatever initial limitations on querying there may be, there are ultimately no controls on how this data is ultimately used.”

And don’t even get me started on how the 2008 FISA Amendment Act has as many loopholes as a slab of cheese (again, I have commented on this in earlier posts), how the “FISA court does not monitor compliance with its limitations on the collection program” or that the NSA has effectively misled the FISA court before!

By the way, I suggest you read Ms Grannick’s account of her dinner with Keith Alexander – it adds another facet to the kaleidoscope that is his personality disorder.


Excessive confidence, contempt and deception

Naturally, discussions of whether the NSA is or isn’t spying on Americans do nothing to reassure people anywhere else in the world, who are mostly not guilty of any wrongdoing.

The righteous outrage of other countries’ leaders about NSA spying aside – Brasilian president Dilma Rouseff being one example and I have to say I dig the woman for telling the US that “Brazil knows how to protect itself” – Messrs Clapper and Alexander, together with US deputy attorney general James Cole, continue to state their belief that “the manner in which the bulk telephony metadata collection program has been carried out is lawful, and existing oversight mechanisms protect both privacy and security” – remind me again what one of the symptom of Hubris syndrome was? Oh yeah: “Excessive confidence in the individual’s own judgement and contempt for the advice or criticism of others.”

Even more worryingly, the FISA court seems to agree as, apparently, do most of the members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, notably its chair Senator Diane Feinstein.

Again, I refer you to Jaffer and Kaufman’s lexicon for a translation of Feinstein’s comment: “Much of the press has called [collection of phone metadata] a surveillance program. It is not.” (Another spoiler: yes, it is.)

Glenn Greenwald is not wrong when he comments in the Guardian on the “farce” that is “the notion of Congressional oversight over the NSA”.

So. ““[S]erious people” are appealing to our faith that national security is critical, in order to demand that we accept the particular organization of the Intelligence Church.” (My italics and bold.) But not only is “[d]emand for blind faith adherence […] unacceptable.” It is also quite reckless given that the people who ask it of us seem to have been corrupted by the power afforded them and have built an intelligence collection system that repeatedly deceived the American people – mind you, this is Senator Ron Wyden who said this, no less, you can watch it on video.

Given all this, I am not so sure Mr Alexander even needed to go to all the trouble of addressing the public and the families of NSA employees to reassure them, especially if this did happen out of a fear that Congress might curb NSA powers. I am also not so sure that Mr Alexander is the only one suffering from a bit of Hubris. After all, if you read Owen and Davidson’s study, Hubris seems to occur quite frequently in political leaders and the grandiose suggestion by the US “that its interception of data also aims to protect other nations against terrorism” sounds a lot as if some or several of its leaders had “[e]xaggerated self-belief, bordering on a sense of omnipotence, in what they personally can achieve” – it wouldn’t be the first time either.

Wouldn’t it be great, then, if more non-US governments reacted like Brazil’s president – “Brazil, Mr. President,” she said, “knows how to protect itself” – rather than to feed US self-aggrandisement in the same way in which many members of Congress seem to feed the Hubris of Messrs Clapper and Alexander?

Sadly, once again, the Guardian reports that the UK, for one, seems to be opposing tougher data protection laws throughout the EU and I have commented previously on the disappointing reaction of all Western governments in the wake of the Snowden revelations.

“[D]ata protection law used to be a Rubik’s cube”, a British official is quoted as saying, and after Snowden it had [sic] become “a Rubik’s cube on steroids”.

All things considered, either Keith Alexander really isn’t the only one suffering from Hubris or the Rubik’s cube that is data protection law is not the only one on steroids.


2 thoughts on “A study in Hubris: the shenanigans of one Keith Alexander (also starring James Clapper and the Senate Intelligence Committee)

  1. Pingback: Edward Snowden: A Case for Clemency? | Notes from Self

  2. Pingback: Have we been demonising the NSA? | Notes from Self

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