WASHINGTON, Aug. 17 (UPI) -- Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander appears to be the perfect man to head the National Security Agency. But he faces the challenge of heading a 21st century high-tech dinosaur trying to swat hundreds of thousands of low tech 19th century-style insects who won't show up on his radar screens.
Alexander succeeds Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden, who was promoted in April to become the first deputy director of national intelligence to national intelligence chief John Negroponte. For the past two years, he has run intelligence operations for the U.S. Army and has been credited with getting to U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq access the real-time intelligence they need to react as fast as possible preemptively against the fast spreading insurgency there.
His most recent project was overhauling the Army's outdated intelligence apparatus to make it more responsive to the needs of soldiers in the field. In June, he announced a new program to give BlackBerry-type devices that would allow troops to tap into the latest intelligence affecting their mission
Alexander, a quiet, techno-junky family man therefore brings exactly the kind of electronic expertise, managerial and tactically-relevant experience the giant, 30,000-strong NSA needs to adapt its global-spanning electronic surveillance network, by far and away the most extensive, technically advanced and efficient in the world, to deal with the 21st challenges of the war on terror.
Alexander is also the handpicked choice of both Negroponte and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. His predecessor at the NSA, Lt. Gen. Hayden, won kudos for the skill with which directed and adapted the giant NSA into tracking global terrorism and plots to proliferate weapons of mass destruction. But Rumsfeld and senior Pentagon officials were frustrated that under Hayden, the NSA did not or could not do more to help them in their struggle against the insurgents in Iraq.
Alexander's highly successful tenure as Army deputy chief of staff for intelligence gave him the credentials to beef up the NSA in Rumsfeld and Negroponte's eyes, Army sources told UPI.
Alexander, a West Point graduate, will inherit an NSA in the throes of transition to its new, far more elusive 21st century role and he will inherit an ambitious but unfinished modernization agenda.
One of the programs, known as Ground Breaker, is an internal effort to upgrade NSA's computer systems, to improve communications with each other and other government agencies. A second initiative, Trailblazer, is geared toward modernizing NSA's eavesdropping methods, so they can better track newer communication methods such as cell phones and e-mail.
However, at a Senate hearing in April, Gen. Hayden acknowledged that his cherished Trailblazer program was years behind schedule and hundreds of millions of dollars over budget. "I would say that we underestimated the costs by, I would say, a couple to several hundred million," he told the committee, adding that the delays were even "more dramatic" than the cost overruns.
"When we actually encountered doing this, it was just far more difficult than anyone anticipated," Hayden said. On top of the other challenges facing him, Alexander will now have to rescue Trailblazer.
Alexander appears to be in the tradition of such 20th century U.S. spymasters like Adm. Stansfield Turner, President Jimmy Carter's choice to head the CIA, or Adm. Bobby Ray Inman, who emphasized elint, or electronic intelligence and sigint, or signals intelligence, rather than humint, or human intelligence for intelligence gathering. Against the old Soviet Union, this approach worked brilliantly well overlong decades.
The problem is that dealing with the elusive world of the Islamist terrorists operating worldwide, requires afar greater emphasis on the old humint skills, especially the kind of human surveillance and cell penetration techniques that the FBI and Britain's MI5 domestic security service have traditionally excelled at.
None of that makes the NSA obsolete or unnecessary -- in a world where terrorists seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction to use in American and other cities, its function is more vital than ever.
But as Gen. Alexander acknowledged in an interview this week with the Baltimore Sun, it presents a vastly more complex and difficult challenge than just being able to tell where an entire Soviet army division is at any time.
In the interview, Gen. Alexander significantly took a technological rather than a traditional espionage or human intelligence view of the challenges facing him: He compared the NSA now to IBM as the electric typewriters they specialized in gave way to computers.
"They transformed out of necessity, and we will have to, too," the Sun Wednesday quoted him as saying. "Transformation is just what we have to do to remain relevant for the country."
Alexander told the Sun that the reforms to streamline the NSA's information-sharing with other intelligence agencies -- a much talked about but little implemented for America's alphabet soup of intelligence and homeland security agencies since the catastrophes of Sept. 11, 2001 -- will still take a few more years to complete.
And reflecting the emphasis he put at Army Intelligence on getting data out to the people who needed it in real time, his next goal, he said, would be to develop new ways to manage and rapidly circulate the vast flow of information that NSA intercepts through various types of eavesdropping.
Alexander is also taking a new look at the agency's contracting process and at it its various modernization programs, according to the Sun.
The question of how NSA spends its multi-billion dollar budget is likely to attract continuing congressional scrutiny -- albeit in closed, classified session, since the entire intelligence budgeting process is secret.
Alexander, therefore, faces huge even unprecedented challenges that may stretch even his unbounded faith in American know-how and the wonders of technology.