General Keith Alexander, the former director of the U.S. National Security Agency, has spent nearly two months as a public punching bag since announcing that after decades of intelligence work, he’ll now charge private companies up to a million dollars for his advice. And this week Alexander finally responded to the criticism, telling the AP he won't be selling state secrets to the highest bidder -- which will likely anger his critics even more.
Alexander told the Associated Press Tuesday that with his new IronNet Cybersecurity business, he’s committing no wrongdoing by using experience from his years as U.S. intelligence chief in the private sector. The move, he asserted, is based on sound legal reasoning.
Alexander served as the director of the NSA from 2005 until March of this year, quietly convincing Congress to dedicate vast resources and funding to the intelligence sector until his tenure was shaken by the unauthorized Edward Snowden leak, which revealed vast U.S. domestic and international spying efforts. It became clear in June that Alexander doesn’t plan to settle down, with Bloomberg reporting that the former director had started IronNet Cybersecurity Inc. Now, for a monthly fee of $1 million dollars or so, banks and major companies can get advice from the man who was arguably the most powerful cybersecurity expert in the world.
IronNet Cybersecurity is now developing a new behavioral model that aims to find new patterns for identifying hackers and stopping them from accessing sophisticated corporate networks. The only problem, in the words of Representative Alan Grayson, is that what Alexander is doing seems to be totally illegal.
“I am writing with concerns about the potential disclosure of classified information by former National Security Agency Director Keith Alexander,” Grayson, a Florida Democrat, wrote in a letter to the president of the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association. “Disclosing or misusing classified information for profit is, as Mr. Alexander well knows, a felony. I question how Mr. Alexander can provide any of the services he is offering unless he discloses or misuses classified information, including extremely sensitive sources and methods. Without the classified information that he acquired in his former position, he literally would have nothing to offer you.”
Alexander maintained that lawyers at the NSA and his own private representation have assured him that there’s nothing out of the ordinary, telling the Associated Press that his new role – which has infuriated members of the national security press – has led to a number of misimpressions.
“I’ve been in government for 40 years; I fully understand the importance and sanctity of classified material,” he said, adding that the reported $1 million fee “was inflated from the beginning.”
IronNet is developing 10 patents and has already secured three clients, although Alexander declined to identify them. His explanation will also leave critics unsatisfied, as he uses an analogy that fails to account for the high-security nature of his profession.
“If I retired from the Army as a brain surgeon, wouldn’t it be okay for me to go into private practice and make money doing brain surgery?” he asked the AP. “I’m a cyber guy. Can’t I go to work and do cyber stuff?”
Well, yes, if the career path of Gen. Michael Hayden, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and Alexander’s predecessor at the NSA, provides any example. Hayden served as intelligence head under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush but now is employed as one of the principal members of The Chertoff Group, a security consulting group and private equity firm run by Michael Chertoff, himself a former chief of Homeland Security. Chertoff, perhaps not coincidentally, is also working with Alexander on IronNet, according to the AP.
“In the person of Keith Alexander, we’re seeing the de facto merger of corporate financial power and government outreach,” Bea Edwards, the executive director of the Government Accountability Project, wrote when IronNet was first announced. “Some subset of corporations is paid to develop the cyberattack and defense capability of the U.S. government, and another subset pays the graduations of the contracting agencies (the NSA and USCYBERCOM) for an inside route to the technology. All of this is being conducted behind the veil of the War on Terror, an increasingly profitable funding vehicle for those well-placed to hop on board.”