General Keith Alexander practicing his pitch last summer at BlackHat USA 2013. Photo via Flickr user Dan Stuckey
Perhaps you already assume that there's some kind of twisted marriage between Wall Street megabanks and the US global surveillance regime. Why wouldn't there be? But not even a total cynic could have anticipated spymaster Keith Alexander cashing in this hard, this fast.
As Bloomberg recently reported, the former National Security Agency chief, who resigned in March at the age of 62, quickly offered his cyber-security expertise at the eye-popping price of $1 million per month to an assortment of shady business lobbies. And now at least one member of Congress is probing this most delightfully dystopian of arrangements, raising the possibility that Alexander will be shamed out of the practice, if nothing else.
“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,” Florida Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson wrote one of the business groups, the Security Industries and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA), which holds it down for Wall Street in Washington. “Without the classified information that he acquired in his former position, he literally would have nothing to offer to you.”
In an interview Monday, Grayson was even more strident in his criticism.
"Frankly, what the general is doing is beginning to resemble an extortion racket," he told me. "This is a man who basically lied for a living, and he continues to do that."
To be clear, what's uniquely outrageous about Alexander, who has apparently lowered his asking price to $600,000, is not that he is a former US official dangling his alleged expertise and the allure of privileged access to government officials before Wall Street. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who served under Barack Obama and is the odds-on favorite to succeed him, does this all the time, usually at a rate of about $250,000 a pop. (Indeed, one might argue that the very fact she has managed to do so while enjoying a stellar national reputation is what signaled to Alexander he might as well dive headlong through the revolving door.) But the former NSA head presumably knows things about sophisticated intelligence-gathering practices that very, very few people on Earth have been privy to—information that could be useful in the private sector, which has a tendency to collude with the military in ways that made former President and World War II General Dwight Eisenhower very sad.
"What could he possibly have that's worth $1 million a month other than classified information?" wonders Melanie Sloan, founder of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a good government group. "That's more than former presidents make." It's true: Even Bill Clinton, whose corruption since leaving office is by now the stuff of legend, doesn't have the gall to ask for that much per gig. There's a sort of "fuck it!" attitude to what Alexander is doing, seemingly kicking sand in the face of everyone angry at his surveillance regime by getting paid to reflect on the experience of assembling it.
More ominously, there's the prospect that Alexander, whether deliberately or otherwise, may have left behind vulnerabilities while running the NSA so as to put himself in prime position to effectively hold the banks hostage now. Certainly, there have been reports suggesting the agency was aware of some vulnerabilities it either could or did not address.
"What is especially troubling is he might actually be worth it," says former North Carolina Democratic Congressman Brad Miller, who worked extensively on financial regulation and Wall Street reform in Washington. "He's obviously not a computer geek. Some of the things that might have seemed paranoid a few years ago now seem more than plausible given what we've already learned the NSA has been doing."
In an email, former New York Times reporter and Goldman Sachs regulatory guru Stephen Labaton—who is currently president of communications and influence powerhouse RLM Finsbury and apparently fielding the General's media inquiries—dismissed Grayson's critique and Miller's concerns. "The letter is ludicrous," he wrote me, before adding about Miller, "The congressman’s kidding, right? Will he [Alexander] next be tied to the Kennedy assassination?" But as Marcy Wheeler points out, given that the former NSA boss has spent the last year hyping the incredible risk of catastrophic cyber-attack, as well as the alleged damage done by Edward Snowden (an assessment his successor does not seem to share), it's fair to ask if his consultancy is essentially a scam. That the victims are, for now, Wall Street bankers—some of the least sympathetic human beings around—is a sweet bit of irony. But it doesn't change the bigger picture: In this age of total surveillance and unchecked financial power, the frontiers of corruption never seem to stop expanding.
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