With his revelations exposing the extent of potential, and actual, pervasive NSA surveillance over the American population, Edward Snowden has done a great service for the public by finally forcing it to answer the question: is having Big Brother peek at every private communication and electronic information, a fair exchange for the alleged benefit of the state’s security. Alas, without further action form a population that appears largely numb and apathetic to disclosures that until recently would have sparked mass protests and toppled presidents, the best we can hope for within a political regime that has hijacked the democratic process, is some intense introspection as to what the concept of “America” truly means.
However, and more importantly, what Snowden’s revelations have confirmed, is that behind the scenes, America is now actively engaged in a new kind of war: an unprecedented cyber war, where collecting, deciphering, intercepting, and abusing information is the only thing that matters and leads to unprecedented power, and where enemies both foreign and domestic may be targeted without due process based on a lowly analyst’s “whim.”
It has also put spotlight on the man, who until recently deep in the shadows, has been responsible for building America’s secret, absolutely massive cyber army, and which according to a just released Wired profile is “capable of launching devastating cyberattacks. Now it’s ready to unleash hell.”
Meet General Keith Alexander, “a man few even in Washington would likely recognize”, which is troubling because Alexander is now quite possibly the most powerful person in the world, that nobody talks about. Which is just the way he likes it.
This is the partial and incomplete story of the man who may now be empowered with more unchecked power than any person in the history of the US, or for that matter, the world. It comes once again, courtesy of the man who over a year before the Guardian’s Snowden bombshell broke the story about the NSA’s secret Utah data storage facility, James Bamford, and whose intimate knowledge of the NSA’s secrets comes by way of being a consultant for the defense team of one Thomas Drake, one of the original NSA whistleblowers (as we learn from the full Wired article).
But first, by way of background, here is a glimpse of Alexander’s ultra-secretive kingdom. From Wired:
Inside Fort Meade, Maryland, a top-secret city bustles. Tens of thousands of people move through more than 50 buildings—the city has its own post office, fire department, and police force. But as if designed by Kafka, it sits among a forest of trees, surrounded by electrified fences and heavily armed guards, protected by antitank barriers, monitored by sensitive motion detectors, and watched by rotating cameras. To block any telltale electromagnetic signals from escaping, the inner walls of the buildings are wrapped in protective copper shielding and the one-way windows are embedded with a fine copper mesh.
This is the undisputed domain of General Keith Alexander, a man few even in Washington would likely recognize. Never before has anyone in America’s intelligence sphere come close to his degree of power, the number of people under his command, the expanse of his rule, the length of his reign, or the depth of his secrecy. A four-star Army general, his authority extends across three domains: He is director of the world’s largest intelligence service, the National Security Agency; chief of the Central Security Service; and commander of the US Cyber Command. As such, he has his own secret military, presiding over the Navy’s 10th Fleet, the 24th Air Force, and the Second Army.
Schematically, Alexander’s empire consists of the following: virtually every piece in America’s information intelligence arsenal.
As the Snowden scandal has unfurled, some glimpses into the “introspective” capabilities of the NSA, and its sister organizations, have demonstrated just how powerful the full “intelligence” arsenal of the US can be.
However, it is when it is facing outward – as it normally does – that things get really scary. Because contrary to prevailing conventional wisdom, Alexander’s intelligence and information-derived power is far from simply defensive. In fact, it is when its offensive potential is exposed that the full destructive power in Alexander’s grasp is revealed:
In its tightly controlled public relations, the NSA has focused attention on the threat of cyberattack against the US—the vulnerability of critical infrastructure like power plants and water systems, the susceptibility of the military’s command and control structure, the dependence of the economy on the Internet’s smooth functioning. Defense against these threats was the paramount mission trumpeted by NSA brass at congressional hearings and hashed over at security conferences.
But there is a flip side to this equation that is rarely mentioned: The military has for years been developing offensive capabilities, giving it the power not just to defend the US but to assail its foes. Using so-called cyber-kinetic attacks, Alexander and his forces now have the capability to physically destroy an adversary’s equipment and infrastructure, and potentially even to kill. Alexander—who declined to be interviewed for this article—has concluded that such cyberweapons are as crucial to 21st-century warfare as nuclear arms were in the 20th.
And he and his cyberwarriors have already launched their first attack. The cyberweapon that came to be known as Stuxnet was created and built by the NSA in partnership with the CIA and Israeli intelligence in the mid-2000s. The first known piece of malware designed to destroy physical equipment, Stuxnet was aimed at Iran’s nuclear facility in Natanz. By surreptitiously taking control of an industrial control link known as a Scada (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) system, the sophisticated worm was able to damage about a thousand centrifuges used to enrich nuclear material.
The success of this sabotage came to light only in June 2010, when the malware spread to outside computers. It was spotted by independent security researchers, who identified telltale signs that the worm was the work of thousands of hours of professional development. Despite headlines around the globe, officials in Washington have never openly acknowledged that the US was behind the attack. It wasn’t until 2012 that anonymous sources within the Obama administration took credit for it in interviews with The New York Times.
But Stuxnet is only the beginning. Alexander’s agency has recruited thousands of computer experts, hackers, and engineering PhDs to expand US offensive capabilities in the digital realm. The Pentagon has requested $4.7 billion for “cyberspace operations,” even as the budget of the CIA and other intelligence agencies could fall by $4.4 billion. It is pouring millions into cyberdefense contractors. And more attacks may be planned.
Alexander’s background is equally as impressive: a classmate of Petraeus and Dempsey, a favorite of Rumsfeld, the General had supreme power written all over his career progression. If reaching the top at all costs meant crushing the fourth amendment and lying to Congress in the process, so be it:
Born in 1951, the third of five children, Alexander was raised in the small upstate New York hamlet of Onondaga Hill, a suburb of Syracuse. He tossed papers for the Syracuse Post-Standard and ran track at Westhill High School while his father, a former Marine private, was involved in local Republican politics. It was 1970, Richard Nixon was president, and most of the country had by then begun to see the war in Vietnam as a disaster. But Alexander had been accepted at West Point, joining a class that included two other future four-star generals, David Petraeus and Martin Dempsey. Alexander would never get the chance to serve in Vietnam. Just as he stepped off the bus at West Point, the ground war finally began winding down.
In April 1974, just before graduation, he married his high school classmate Deborah Lynn Douglas, who grew up two doors away in Onondaga Hill. The fighting in Vietnam was over, but the Cold War was still bubbling, and Alexander focused his career on the solitary, rarefied world of signals intelligence, bouncing from secret NSA base to secret NSA base, mostly in the US and Germany. He proved a competent administrator, carrying out assignments and adapting to the rapidly changing high tech environment. Along the way he picked up masters degrees in electronic warfare, physics, national security strategy, and business administration. As a result, he quickly rose up the military intelligence ranks, where expertise in advanced technology was at a premium.
In 2001, Alexander was a one-star general in charge of the Army Intelligence and Security Command, the military’s worldwide network of 10,700 spies and eavesdroppers. In March of that year he told his hometown Syracuse newspaper that his job was to discover threats to the country. “We have to stay out in front of our adversary,” Alexander said. “It’s a chess game, and you don’t want to lose this one.” But just six months later, Alexander and the rest of the American intelligence community suffered a devastating defeat when they were surprised by the attacks on 9/11. Following the assault, he ordered his Army intercept operators to begin illegally monitoring the phone calls and email of American citizens who had nothing to do with terrorism, including intimate calls between journalists and their spouses. Congress later gave retroactive immunity to the telecoms that assisted the government.
In 2003, Alexander, a favorite of defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, was named the Army’s deputy chief of staff for intelligence, the service’s most senior intelligence position. Among the units under his command were the military intelligence teams involved in the human rights abuses at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison. Two years later, Rumsfeld appointed Alexander—now a three-star general—director of the NSA, where he oversaw the illegal, warrantless wiretapping program while deceiving members of the House Intelligence Committee. In a publicly released letter to Alexander shortly after The New York Times exposed the program, US representative Rush Holt, a member of the committee, angrily took him to task for not being forthcoming about the wiretapping: “Your responses make a mockery of congressional oversight.”
In short: Emperor Alexander.
Inside the government, the general is regarded with a mixture of respect and fear, not unlike J. Edgar Hoover, another security figure whose tenure spanned multiple presidencies. “We jokingly referred to him as Emperor Alexander—with good cause, because whatever Keith wants, Keith gets,” says one former senior CIA official who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity. “We would sit back literally in awe of what he was able to get from Congress, from the White House, and at the expense of everybody else.”
What happened next in Alexander’s career some time in the mid 2000’s, was Stuxnet: the story of the crushing virus that nearly destroyed the Iranian nuclear program has been widely documented on these pages and elsewhere, so we won’t recount the Wired article’s details. However, what was very odd about the Stuxnet attack is that such a brilliantly conceived and delivered virus could ultimately be uncovered and traced back to the NSA and Israel. It was almost too good. Still, what happened after the revelation that Stuxnet could be traced to Fort Meade, is that the middle-east, supposedly, promptly retaliated:
Sure enough, in August 2012 a devastating virus was unleashed on Saudi Aramco, the giant Saudi state-owned energy company. The malware infected 30,000 computers, erasing three-quarters of the company’s stored data, destroying everything from documents to email to spreadsheets and leaving in their place an image of a burning American flag, according to The New York Times. Just days later, another large cyberattack hit RasGas, the giant Qatari natural gas company. Then a series of denial-of-service attacks took America’s largest financial institutions offline. Experts blamed all of this activity on Iran, which had created its own cyber command in the wake of the US-led attacks. James Clapper, US director of national intelligence, for the first time declared cyberthreats the greatest danger facing the nation, bumping terrorism down to second place. In May, the Department of Homeland Security’s Industrial Control Systems Cyber Emergency Response Team issued a vague warning that US energy and infrastructure companies should be on the alert for cyberattacks. It was widely reported that this warning came in response to Iranian cyberprobes of industrial control systems. An Iranian diplomat denied any involvement.
The cat-and-mouse game could escalate. “It’s a trajectory,” says James Lewis, a cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The general consensus is that a cyber response alone is pretty worthless. And nobody wants a real war.” Under international law, Iran may have the right to self-defense when hit with destructive cyberattacks. William Lynn, deputy secretary of defense, laid claim to the prerogative of self-defense when he outlined the Pentagon’s cyber operations strategy. “The United States reserves the right,” he said, “under the laws of armed conflict, to respond to serious cyberattacks with a proportional and justified military response at the time and place of our choosing.” Leon Panetta, the former CIA chief who had helped launch the Stuxnet offensive, would later point to Iran’s retaliation as a troubling harbinger. “The collective result of these kinds of attacks could be a cyber Pearl Harbor,” he warned in October 2012, toward the end of his tenure as defense secretary, “an attack that would cause physical destruction and the loss of life.”
Almost too good… Because what the so-called hacker “retaliations” originating from Iran, China, Russia, etc, led to such laughable outcomes as DDOS attacks against – to unprecedented media fanfare – the portals of such firms as JPMorgan and Wells Fargo, and as Wired adds, “if Stuxnet was the proof of concept, it also proved that one successful cyberattack begets another. For Alexander, this offered the perfect justification for expanding his empire.“
The expansion that took place next for Alexander and his men, all of it under the Obama regime, was simply unprecedented (and that it steamrolled right through the “sequester” was perfectly expected):
[D]ominance has long been their watchword. Alexander’s Navy calls itself the Information Dominance Corps. In 2007, the then secretary of the Air Force pledged to “dominate cyberspace” just as “today, we dominate air and space.” And Alexander’s Army warned, “It is in cyberspace that we must use our strategic vision to dominate the information environment.” The Army is reportedly treating digital weapons as another form of offensive capability, providing frontline troops with the option of requesting “cyber fire support” from Cyber Command in the same way they request air and artillery support.
All these capabilities require a giant expansion of secret facilities. Thousands of hard-hatted construction workers will soon begin erecting cranes, driving backhoes, and emptying cement trucks as they expand the boundaries of NSA’s secret city eastward, increasing its already enormous size by a third. “You could tell that some of the seniors at NSA were truly concerned that cyber was going to engulf them,” says a former senior Cyber Command official, “and I think rightfully so.”
In May, work began on a $3.2 billion facility housed at Fort Meade in Maryland. Known as Site M, the 227-acre complex includes its own 150-megawatt power substation, 14 administrative buildings, 10 parking garages, and chiller and boiler plants. The server building will have 90,000 square feet of raised floor—handy for supercomputers—yet hold only 50 people. Meanwhile, the 531,000-square-foot operations center will house more than 1,300 people. In all, the buildings will have a footprint of 1.8 million square feet. Even more ambitious plans, known as Phase II and III, are on the drawing board. Stretching over the next 16 years, they would quadruple the footprint to 5.8 million square feet, enough for nearly 60 buildings and 40 parking garages, costing $5.2 billion and accommodating 11,000 more cyberwarriors.
In short, despite the sequestration, layoffs, and furloughs in the federal government, it’s a boom time for Alexander. In April, as part of its 2014 budget request, the Pentagon asked Congress for $4.7 billion for increased “cyberspace operations,” nearly $1 billion more than the 2013 allocation. At the same time, budgets for the CIA and other intelligence agencies were cut by almost the same amount, $4.4 billion. A portion of the money going to Alexander will be used to create 13 cyberattack teams.
In the New Normal, the CIA is no longer relevant: all that matters are Alexanders’ armies of hackers and computer geeks.
But not only has the public espionage sector been unleashed: the private sector is poised to reap a killing (pardon the pun) too…
What’s good for Alexander is good for the fortunes of the cyber-industrial complex, a burgeoning sector made up of many of the same defense contractors who grew rich supplying the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. With those conflicts now mostly in the rearview mirror, they are looking to Alexander as a kind of savior. After all, the US spends about $30 billion annually on cybersecurity goods and services.
In the past few years, the contractors have embarked on their own cyber building binge parallel to the construction boom at Fort Meade: General Dynamics opened a 28,000-square-foot facility near the NSA; SAIC cut the ribbon on its new seven-story Cyber Innovation Center; the giant CSC unveiled its Virtual Cyber Security Center. And at consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, where former NSA director Mike McConnell was hired to lead the cyber effort, the company announced a “cyber-solutions network” that linked together nine cyber-focused facilities. Not to be outdone, Boeing built a new Cyber Engagement Center. Leaving nothing to chance, it also hired retired Army major general Barbara Fast, an old friend of Alexander’s, to run the operation. (She has since moved on.)
Defense contractors have been eager to prove that they understand Alexander’s worldview. “Our Raytheon cyberwarriors play offense and defense,” says one help-wanted site. Consulting and engineering firms such as Invertix and Parsons are among dozens posting online want ads for “computer network exploitation specialists.” And many other companies, some unidentified, are seeking computer and network attackers. “Firm is seeking computer network attack specialists for long-term government contract in King George County, VA,” one recent ad read. Another, from Sunera, a Tampa, Florida, company, said it was hunting for “attack and penetration consultants.”
It gets better: all those anti-virus programs you have on computer to “make it safe” from backdoors and trojans? Guess what – they are the backdoors and trojans!
One of the most secretive of these contractors is Endgame Systems, a startup backed by VCs including Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Bessemer Venture Partners, and Paladin Capital Group. Established in Atlanta in 2008, Endgame is transparently antitransparent. “We’ve been very careful not to have a public face on our company,” former vice president John M. Farrell wrote to a business associate in an email that appeared in a WikiLeaks dump. “We don’t ever want to see our name in a press release,” added founder Christopher Rouland. True to form, the company declined Wired’s interview requests.
Perhaps for good reason: According to news reports, Endgame is developing ways to break into Internet-connected devices through chinks in their antivirus armor. Like safecrackers listening to the click of tumblers through a stethoscope, the “vulnerability researchers” use an extensive array of digital tools to search for hidden weaknesses in commonly used programs and systems, such as Windows and Internet Explorer. And since no one else has ever discovered these unseen cracks, the manufacturers have never developed patches for them.
Thus, in the parlance of the trade, these vulnerabilities are known as “zero-day exploits,” because it has been zero days since they have been uncovered and fixed. They are the Achilles’ heel of the security business, says a former senior intelligence official involved with cyberwarfare. Those seeking to break into networks and computers are willing to pay millions of dollars to obtain them.
Such as the US government. But if you thought PRISM was bad you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet. Because tying it all together is Endgame’s appropriately named “Bonesaw” – what it is is practically The Matrix transplanted into the real cyber world.
According to Defense News’ C4ISR Journal and Bloomberg Businessweek, Endgame also offers its intelligence clients—agencies like Cyber Command, the NSA, the CIA, and British intelligence—a unique map showing them exactly where their targets are located. Dubbed Bonesaw, the map displays the geolocation and digital address of basically every device connected to the Internet around the world, providing what’s called network situational awareness. The client locates a region on the password-protected web-based map, then picks a country and city— say, Beijing, China. Next the client types in the name of the target organization, such as the Ministry of Public Security’s No. 3 Research Institute, which is responsible for computer security—or simply enters its address, 6 Zhengyi Road. The map will then display what software is running on the computers inside the facility, what types of malware some may contain, and a menu of custom-designed exploits that can be used to secretly gain entry. It can also pinpoint those devices infected with malware, such as the Conficker worm, as well as networks turned into botnets and zombies— the equivalent of a back door left open.
Bonesaw also contains targeting data on US allies, and it is soon to be upgraded with a new version codenamed Velocity, according to C4ISR Journal. It will allow Endgame’s clients to observe in real time as hardware and software connected to the Internet around the world is added, removed, or changed.
More on Bonesaw:
Marketing documents say “the Bonesaw platform provides a complete environment for intelligence analysts and mission planners to take a holistic approach to target discovery, reducing the time to create actionable intelligence and operational plans from days to minutes.”
“Bonesaw is the ability to map, basically every device connected to the Internet and what hardware and software it is,” says a company official who requested anonymity. The official points out that the firm doesn’t launch offensive cyber ops, it just helps.
Back to Wired:
[S]uch access doesn’t come cheap. One leaked report indicated that annual subscriptions could run as high as $2.5 million for 25 zero-day exploits.
That’s ok though, the US government is happy to collect taxpayer money so it can pay these venture capital-backed private firms for the best in espionage technology, allowing it to reach, hack and manipulate every computer system foreign. And domestic.
How ironic: US citizens are funding Big Brother’s own unprecedented spying program against themselves!
Not only that, but by allowing the NSA to develop and utilize technology that is leaps ahead of everyone else – utilize it against the US citizens themselves – America is now effectively war against itself… Not to mention every other foreign country that is a intelligence interest:
The buying and using of such a subscription by nation-states could be seen as an act of war. “If you are engaged in reconnaissance on an adversary’s systems, you are laying the electronic battlefield and preparing to use it,” wrote Mike Jacobs, a former NSA director for information assurance, in a McAfee report on cyberwarfare. “In my opinion, these activities constitute acts of war, or at least a prelude to future acts of war.” The question is, who else is on the secretive company’s client list? Because there is as of yet no oversight or regulation of the cyberweapons trade, companies in the cyber-industrial complex are free to sell to whomever they wish. “It should be illegal,” says the former senior intelligence official involved in cyberwarfare. “I knew about Endgame when I was in intelligence. The intelligence community didn’t like it, but they’re the largest consumer of that business.”
And there you have it: US corporations happily cooperating with the US government’s own espionage services, however since the only thing that matters in the private sector is the bottom line, the Endgames of the world will gladly sell the same ultra-secret services to everyone else who is willing to pay top dollar: China, Russia, Iran…
in their willingness to pay top dollar for more and better zero-day exploits, the spy agencies are helping drive a lucrative, dangerous, and unregulated cyber arms race, one that has developed its own gray and black markets. The companies trading in this arena can sell their wares to the highest bidder—be they frontmen for criminal hacking groups or terrorist organizations or countries that bankroll terrorists, such as Iran. Ironically, having helped create the market in zero-day exploits and then having launched the world into the era of cyberwar, Alexander now says the possibility of zero-day exploits falling into the wrong hands is his “greatest worry.”
Does Alexander have reason to be worried? Oh yes.
In May, Alexander discovered that four months earlier someone, or some group or nation, had secretly hacked into a restricted US government database known as the National Inventory of Dams. Maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers, it lists the vulnerabilities for the nation’s dams, including an estimate of the number of people who might be killed should one of them fail. Meanwhile, the 2013 “Report Card for America’s Infrastructure” gave the US a D on its maintenance of dams. There are 13,991 dams in the US that are classified as high-hazard, the report said. A high-hazard dam is defined as one whose failure would cause loss of life. “That’s our concern about what’s coming in cyberspace—a destructive element. It is a question of time,” Alexander said in a talk to a group involved in information operations and cyberwarfare, noting that estimates put the time frame of an attack within two to five years. He made his comments in September 2011.
In other words, this massive cyberattack against the US predicted by “Emperor” Alexander, an attack in which as Alexander himself has said cyberweapons represent the 21st century equivalent of nuclear arms (and require in kind retaliation) whether false flag or real, is due… some time right around now.