By Conor Friedersdorf
Earlier this year, when Keith Alexander resigned as head of the National Security Agency, he began trying to cash in on expertise he’d gained while in government, pitching himself as a security consultant who could protect Wall Street banks and other large corporations from cyber-attacks by hackers or foreign governments. Early reports focused on the eye-popping price tag for his services: He reportedly asked for $1 million a month, later decreasing his rate to $600,000.
“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,” Representative Alan Grayson wrote in a letter to banking trade groups that retained him. “Without the classified information that he acquired in his former position, he literally would have nothing to offer to you.”
What, exactly, was he selling?
The explanation Alexander offered in an interview with Foreign Policy only raised more questions. In his telling, the value of his consulting services was explained by “a patented and ‘unique’ approach to detecting malicious hackers and cyber-intruders that the retired Army general said he has invented, along with his business partners at IronNet Cybersecurity Inc., the company he co-founded after leaving the government and retiring from military service in March.” He revealed his company’s plans to file at least nine patents “for a system to detect so-called advanced persistent threats, or hackers who clandestinely burrow into a computer network in order to steal secrets or damage the network.”
In government, Alexander had publicized and inveighed against just these sorts of threats, claiming that they were already responsible for the greatest transfer of wealth in human history. He oversaw a workforce that studied cyber-attacks and cyber-defenses, often drawing on highly classified or privileged information. So it struck many observers as suspicious that, immediately upon retiring, he suddenly had a dramatically better solution to a pressing national-security problem, one he never introduced while in government but planned to patent and sell. Had he withheld a valuable security solution to profit from it later? Were the novel approaches he intended to patent developed on the public dime? Alexander claimed that his part of the relevant work was done in his spare time, while other cyber-defense solutions were developed by his partner outside government.
No one could prove that those explanations were lies.
But they smelled fishy, especially because even as Alexander created the appearance of multiple improprieties as he entered the private sector, the NSA refused to release the statements of financial conflicts of interest that he’d filed as a federal employee. Indeed, the NSA refused to release the financial-conflict forms of any of its employees, despite the fact that they were required by public-records laws to do so. Their legal position was partly that releasing these records would harm national security. Investigative journalist Jason Leopold sued to challenge those claims. His victory—the NSA backed down before the case even went to court—showed both the legal indefensibility of withholding those public records and the blatant dishonesty of the claim that their release would harm national security: As you can see for yourself, contra the NSA’s assurances, nothing in the documents that the NSA has now turned over plausibly threatens national security.
What the documents do reveal, beyond the fact that NSA administrators are willing to mislead the public and the press, is that Alexander had even more potential conflicts of interest than were known publicly (though NSA lawyers declared them kosher). As Leopold reports:
Alexander’s interest in surveillance was not limited to his tenure as NSA director. He also invested in firms that are on the cutting edge of surveillance technology. For example, Alexander invested as much as $15,000 in: Pericom Semiconductor, a company that has designed technology for the closed-circuit television and video surveillance markets; RF Micro Devices designs, which manufactures high-performance radio frequency technology that is also used for surveillance; and as much as $50,000 in Synchronoss Technologies, a cloud storage firm that provides acloud platform to mobile phone carriers (the NSA has been accused of hacking into cloud storage providers).
Alexander also held shares in Datascension, Inc., a data gathering and research company. The Securities and Exchange Commission suspended trading in Datascension last August “due to a lack of current and accurate information” about the company. (Datascension was linked to telemarketing calls that apparently prompted one person in a complaint forum to remark the company is “trying to gain personal information.”)
Again, there is no hard evidence of misdeeds. But is it too much to ask that the head of the NSA refrain from investing in surveillance and data-gathering companies? Can someone in that position make unproblematic investments in that sector of the economy? Is there any defense for hiding those investments from the public for years?
The suspicious behavior noted thus far is sufficient, all by itself, to warrant an investigation by Congress in its capacity as the national-security state’s overseer. But the appearance of impropriety hardly ends there. Observers of Washington, D.C., have long lamented the “revolving door” between government and industry. Lately, the NSA has dispensed with the pretense of any door at all.
Consider the flagrantly problematic arrangement that was being used by the agency and its former boss until this week. “Under the arrangement, which was confirmed by Alexander and current intelligence officials, NSA’s Chief Technical Officer, Patrick Dowd, is allowed to work up to 20 hours a week at IronNet Cybersecurity Inc, the private firm led by Alexander, a retired Army general and his former boss,” Reuters reported. “The arrangement was approved by top NSA managers, current and former officials said. It does not appear to break any laws and it could not be determined whether Dowd has actually begun working for Alexander.”
Shortly after the arrangement became public, it was abandoned:
Keith Alexander has ended a deal with a senior U.S. intelligence official allowing the official to work part-time for his firm, an arrangement current and former officials said risked a conflict of interest. Reuters reported on Friday that the U.S. National Security Agency had launched an internal review of the arrangement between NSA Chief Technical Officer Patrick Dowd and IronNet Cybersecurity Inc, which is led by Alexander, his former boss. On Tuesday, Alexander said: “While we understand we did everything right, I think there’s still enough issues out there that create problems for Dr. Dowd, for NSA, for my company,” that it was best for him to terminate the deal.
The setup could not withstand public scrutiny. It caused many, including current U.S. officials, to cry foul. But Alexander still insists that he did “everything right.” This is a man with deeply suspect judgment who has been caught in public lies. What still-unknown arrangements went on at the highly secretive agency during his tenure?
Meanwhile, another high-ranking NSA official, Teresa Shea, is making headlines—not because her husband, James Shea, “works for a major SIGINT contracting firm, DRS Signal Solutions Inc., which appears to do business with the NSA,” though that too is of interest, but because BuzzFeed discovered that “there’s a private SIGINT consulting and contracting business based at Shea’s home,” and in addition to that business, there’s a separate business that … well, it’s a bit unclear:
Yet another company, apparently focused on the office and electronics business, is based at the Shea residence on that well-tended lot. This company is called Oplnet LLC. Teresa Shea, who has been at the NSA since 1984, is the company’s resident agent. The company’s articles of organization, signed by Teresa Shea, show that the firm was established in 1999 primarily “to buy, sell, rent and lease office and electronic equipment and related goods and services.” An attorney who also signed the document, Alan Engel, said he couldn’t comment on client matters.
BuzzFeed News found no evidence that the firm has done business with the federal government, and it is unclear what electronics or office business the firm deals in. The firm is listed as active at the Maryland Department of Assessment and Taxation. One document on file at the Federal Aviation Administration lists Teresa Shea as the “sole member” of the LLC. Records show Oplnet does own a six-seat airplane, as well a condominium property with an assessed value of $275,000 in the resort town of Hilton Head, South Carolina.
Once again, there is no hard evidence of impropriety and plenty of questions raised. The NSA is presented to the American people as an agency on the front lines of preventing terrorism at a time when tracking global threats is overwhelming. Yet officials at the very top of the agency purportedly have enough free time, while holding ostensibly high-pressure national-security jobs, to invest in surveillance companies, develop multiple patents, moonlight for a private consulting firm that serves the financial industry, and operate multiple side-businesses. I haven’t seen so many red flags since Beijing hosted the Summer Olympics.
All of this comes in the context of an agency that has been accused by former staffers of participating in the corrupt, revolving-door culture of Washington. Here’s NSA whistleblower William Binney describing how it works:
Bill: It would work pretty much like this. If they retired or quit NSA they could go to the contractors and work for the contractors at a higher salary, then come back to NSA to all the people they knew and influence them to get contracts.
Rob: Would you say this was a very common occurrence?
Bill: Yes. It was quite common. All you have to do is look at the people who are the higher level people and look at they retire from NSA or CIA or other agencies of government and look at where they go for jobs and who they contract and you can see the influence there.
Rob: So let me just recapitulate this. So, what happens is, a company goes to NSA and says “we have a project we’d like to sell you.” Someone from NSA says, “Okay, write up the request for the proposal. I’ll put it in and then you can write up the response to the proposal.
Bill: Yeah, and “tell me how much it’s going to cost,” and that comes from the corporation.
Binney goes on to argue that the NSA is more vulnerable to corruption than many other federal agencies “because they’re not audited. They are not audited by the government anywhere. The government accounting office does not not audit them at all. So, they have no threat of being viewed as to how they spend money. The only thing that can happen is the IG, internally, in NSA has to do something, and get involved to do something there. That’s the only way they can get exposed. Otherwise the government doesn’t even look at how they spend money.”
When you’ve got former employees alleging rampant, ongoing corruption, coupled with suspicious behavior by multiple current and former high-ranking NSA officials, you’d think a congressional investigation would be a no-brainer. Overseers ought to probe whether current and former NSA officials are profiting off of work done on the public dime, monetizing their access to classified information, using the private sector to skirt the scant existing oversight of the NSA—this may be about hiding dubious public business in the private sector—or rewarding former employees with unnecessary or excessively generous contracts.
Unfortunately, Senator Dianne Feinstein, the chairman of the Senate committee that oversees the intelligence agency, is herself vulnerable to conflict-of-interest charges. Her ultra-wealthy husband has earned untold millions through defense contracts secured by a firm in which he’s a major shareholder. The firm once dismissed ethics concerns by stating, “Sen. Feinstein has no say or involvement whatsoever in how Defense Department contracts are awarded.” Yes, how on earth would a powerful, hawkish Democratic senator influence defense contracts?
Little surprise that Feinstein appears unconcerned about the appearance of impropriety at the NSA. When overseers are participating in the same ethically questionable behavior they’re meant to police, benefitting financially in ways that inevitably and understandably undermine public faith in government rectitude, the predictable result are high-ranking bureaucrats who behave as badly, at best. There is no legitimate excuse for ignoring all these warning signs at the NSA, or for pretending that there is nothing suspicious about Alexander’s private sector career. At best, Alexander, Dowd, Shea, and Feinstein, along with many others in Washington, D.C., should be ashamed of themselves for the role they’ve all played undermining trust in institutions that need to exist in some form. At worst, something more nefarious is afoot. Does anyone in Congress care to determine the truth?