NSA Chief's Former War Room Was Modeled After the Starship Enterprise

Illustration for article titled NSA Chiefs Former War Room Was Modeled After the Starship Enterprise

NSA director Keith Alexander might be the most famous spy in America right now. Everyone wants to know who's really behind the agency's widespread snooping. And now, a lengthy profile of Alexander in Foreign Policy invites even more intrigue. It also reveals some of the general's weird ways.

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The core questions raised about Alexander the "cowboy" in the FP story stem from revelations in Edward Snowden's leak of confidential NSA documents earlier this summer. "Cowboy" doesn't quite cut it, though. Alexander sounds a bit more eccentric than that:

When he was running the Army's Intelligence and Security Command, Alexander brought many of his future allies down to Fort Belvoir for a tour of his base of operations, a facility known as the Information Dominance Center. It had been designed by a Hollywood set designer to mimic the bridge of the starship Enterprise from Star Trek, complete with chrome panels, computer stations, a huge TV monitor on the forward wall, and doors that made a "whoosh" sound when they slid open and closed. Lawmakers and other important officials took turns sitting in a leather "captain's chair" in the center of the room and watched as Alexander, a lover of science-fiction movies, showed off his data tools on the big screen.

"Everybody wanted to sit in the chair at least once to pretend he was Jean-Luc Picard," says a retired officer in charge of VIP visits.

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Well that's odd, but it doesn't explain his decisions as NSA director. Why, for instance, did Alexander expand the NSA's purview with programs like PRISM that flirted with the line between what's legal and what's not? The general did it because he believed that big data and technology could protect the nation. That's not such a bad thing to believe in! However, sometimes Alexander's approach can be very misleading. For example:

"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."

Another official remembered a chart that Alexander had drawn up to identify all of the terrorists in Afghanistan. When they checked the research, they found no evidence of terrorist activity and discovered that a quarter of the targets on Alexander's list were already dead.

Well hey, even powerful people make mistakes. Surely, Alexander surrounded himself with level-headed folks who can give him a good gut check every now and then. You'd think that his most trusted lieutenant, James Heath, would be the one. But no. Heath is kind of crazy:

Several former intelligence officials who worked with Heath described him as Alexander's "mad scientist." Another called him the NSA director's "evil genius." For years, Heath, a brilliant but abrasive technologist, has been in charge of making Alexander's most ambitious ideas a reality; many of the controversial data-mining tools that Alexander wanted to use against the NSA's raw intelligence were developed by Heath, for example. "He's smart, crazy, and dangerous. He'll push the technology to the limits to get it to do what he wants," says a former intelligence official.

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So the director of the NSA is a trekkie? And his right hand man is an "evil genius?" And that replica of the Enterprise bridge was built with taxpayer dollars? OK then.

If you're still curious about Keith Alexander, check out the Alexander profile in full. (Spoiler: The general's favorite iPhone game is Bejeweled Blits.) [FP]

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DISCUSSION

evildroidclone2
EvilDroidClone2

The following are 30 incredibly stupid things that the federal government is spending money on….

#1 The U.S. government is spending $750,000 on a new soccer field for detainees held at Guantanamo Bay.

#2 The Obama administration plans to spend between 16 and 20 million dollars helping students from Indonesia get master’s degrees.

#3 If you can believe it, the U.S. government has spent $175,587 “to determine if cocaine makes Japanese quail engage in sexually risky behavior”.

#4 The U.S. government spent $200,000 on “a tattoo removal program” in Mission Hills, California.

#5 The federal government has shelled out $3 million to researchers at the University of California at Irvine to fund their research on video games such as World of Warcraft. Wouldn’t we all love to have a “research job” like that?

#6 The Department of Health and Human Services plans to spend $500 million on a program that will, among other things, seek to solve the problem of 5-year-old children that “can’t sit still” in a kindergarten classroom.

#7 Fannie Mae is about to ask the federal government for another $4.6 billion bailout, and it will almost certainly get it.

#8 The federal government once spent 30 million dollars on a program that was designed to help Pakistani farmers produce more mangos.

#9 The U.S. Department of Agriculture once gave researchers at the University of New Hampshire $700,000 to study methane gas emissions from dairy cows.

#10 According to USA Today, 13 different government agencies “fund 209 different science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education programs — and 173 of those programs overlap with at least one other program.”

#11 A total of $615,000 was given to the University of California at Santa Cruz to digitize photos, T-shirts and concert tickets belonging to the Grateful Dead.

#12 China lends us more money than any other foreign nation, but that didn’t stop our government from spending 17.8 million dollars on social and environmental programs for China.

#13 The U.S. government once spent 2.6 million dollars to train Chinese prostitutes to drink responsibly.

#14 One professor at Stanford University was given $239,100 to study how Americans use the Internet to find love.

#15 The U.S. Postal Service spent $13,500 on a single dinner at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse.

#16 The National Science Foundation once spent $216,000 to study whether or not politicians “gain or lose support by taking ambiguous positions”.

#17 A total of $1.8 million was spent on a “museum of neon signs” in Las Vegas, Nevada.

#18 The federal government spends 25 billion dollars a year maintaining federal buildings that are either unused or totally vacant.

#19 U.S. farmers are given a total of $2 billion each year for not farming their land.

#20 The U.S. government handed one Tennessee library $5,000 for the purpose of hosting a series of video game parties.

#21 A few years ago the government spent $123,050 on a Mother’s Day Shrine in Grafton, West Virginia. It turns out that Grafton only has a population of a little more than 5,000 people.

#22 One professor at Dartmouth University was given $137,530 to create a “recession-themed” video game entitled “Layoff”.

#23 According to the Heritage Foundation, the U.S. military spent “$998,798 shipping two 19-cent washers from South Carolina to Texas and $293,451 sending an 89-cent washer from South Carolina to Florida”.

#24 The U.S. Department of Agriculture once shelled out $30,000 to a group of farmers to develop a tourist-friendly database of farms that host guests for overnight “haycations”.

#25 The National Institutes of Health paid researchers $400,000 to find out why gay men in Argentina engage in risky sexual behavior when they are drunk.

#26 The National Institutes of Health also once spent $442,340 to study the behavior of male prostitutes in Vietnam.

#27 The National Institutes of Health loves to spend our tax money on really bizarre things. The NIH once spent $800,000 in “stimulus funds” to study the impact of a “genital-washing program” on men in South Africa.

#28 According to the Washington Post, 1,271 different government organizations work on government programs related to counterterrorism and homeland security.

#29 The U.S. government spent $100,000 on a “Celebrity Chef Fruit Promotion Road Show in Indonesia”.

#30 The feds once gave Alaska Airlines $500,000 “to paint a Chinook salmon” on the side of a Boeing 737.

How in the world can our government be so foolish?

Anyone that claims that there is not a lot of stuff that can be cut out of the federal budget is lying to you.

All of this crazy spending is going to get us into a massive amount of trouble eventually. Already, on a per capita basis the U.S. national debt is worse than the national debts of Greece, Italy, Ireland, Portugal and Spain.

We have accumulated the biggest debt in the history of the world and we are adding to it at a rate of about 150 million dollars an hour.

Our politicians strut around as if they are the smartest and wisest leaders in the history of the world, but the truth is that someday people will look back in horror at the decline of our once great society.

The federal government needs to stop spending so much money on stupid things and needs to stop pushing our national debt to nightmarish new levels.

Unfortunately, the corruption in Washington D.C. is so deep and so pervasive that it is going to be almost impossible to turn it around.