New NSA Chief Sees Tough Choices Ahead

Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander this month became the chief of America's largest spying enterprise, the National Security Agency. Alexander discusses the tough decisions he faces, including how to update the NSA's technology to meet 21st-century threats.

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SUSAN STAMBERG, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Susan Stamberg.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

The nation's biggest spy agency has a new boss. The National Security Agency is not as well-known as the CIA, and they like it that way, but it's a worldwide enterprise charged with eavesdropping on the conversations of world leaders, terrorists and spies. The agency's new boss faces the challenge of meeting threats from the likes of Iran and North Korea. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly has a rare interview with the new NSA chief.

MARY LOUISE KELLY reporting:

Keith Alexander may now command thousands, and a beautiful view across the leafy Maryland suburbs, from his top-floor office at NSA headquarters, but Alexander comes across as a down-to-Earth guy. He reveals that for lunch he ate a ham sandwich he made himself and brought from home and that his family still teases him regularly despite his lofty new title.

General KEITH ALEXANDER (National Security Agency): They think it's great. And I think they're proud of it in their own way, but they still don't treat me any better. You know, with four daughters and four granddaughters and a wife, you know, it's tough.

KELLY: Alexander commands considerably more respect in the military and intelligence circles in which he moves. Claudia Kennedy was Alexander's boss when he was a rising star in Army intelligence and she was the Army's intelligence chief. Kennedy remembers that from early on, Alexander had a talent for grasping both the big picture and the nuts and bolts of technical intelligence.

Ms. CLAUDIA KENNEDY (Former Army's Intelligence Chief): He has done things with tactical intelligence that no one before him had ever done. There had been a lot of discussion about bringing strategic capabilities to the tactical commander but he was the first person who really did it in a substantial way.

KELLY: Alexander already has some experience in the spotlight. In 2003, he took over as the Army's chief intelligence officer, and he was in that job when the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal broke. Because he was outside the chain of command that oversaw interrogations in Iraq, Alexander managed to survive with his reputation in tact. He says the Army learned important lessons from Abu Ghraib, and, in his view, has corrected most of the problems that allowed the abuse to happen. Keith Alexander doesn't plan any drastic reforms in his new job at NSA. That's in contrast to other US spy agencies. After the massive intelligence failures of 9/11 and in prewar Iraq, the CIA has seen an almost complete overhaul of its senior leadership. The FBI has dramatically restructured its intelligence operations. But Alexander says similar upheavals aren't necessary at the National Security Agency.

Gen. ALEXANDER: I don't see a need for radical turnover. I do see a need to continue the transformation that we're on. And that's clear that we've got to do that.

KELLY: That transformation includes shedding the NSA's old Cold War mind-set and directing resources towards new challenges from terrorist groups and budding nuclear powers. Alexander also faces looming political battles. Both the House and Senate Intelligence Committees have signaled they want to cut funding for spy satellites and other multibillion dollar technical programs in favor of a return to good old-fashioned human spying. That could hurt the NSA. Alexander says he recognizes these are tough choices.

Gen. ALEXANDER: It's kind of like going over your budget and you're weighing what can you afford, if you want a new dining room suite or do you want a new living room suite or do you want to take a vacation. And it's something that you have to work your way through if you can't afford all three. We have to look at the same thing. How do we get the best collection, analysis, the best intel system?

KELLY: Another question facing Alexander is just how open to be about the NSA and its work. One of his predecessors as NSA director, General William Odom, says his number-one piece of advice to Alexander would be stop talking to reporters, lower the agency's profile.

General WILLIAM ODOM (Former NSA Director): If you tell everybody in the world about what you're doing, it makes it easier to evade you.

KELLY: So the best thing he could do, you think, is to get the NSA out of the press.

Gen. ODOM: Absolutely. It should go back to `no such agency.'

KELLY: No such agency, a reference to the running joke about what NSA really stands for. Today, as he squints at a reporter over his glass conference table, spread with maps of Baghdad and the Middle East, General Alexander says talking to reporters is a fact of life in today's world. But, he concedes, it's not something he envisions doing too often. `Nice to meet you,' he says. `Maybe we'll speak again if I do an exit interview on my way out.' Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.

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