Now-retired Gen. Keith Alexander was interviewed by comedian John Oliver for the premiere of his new HBO show, “Last Week Tonight.” It was both hilarious and refreshingly antagonistic, as Oliver confronted him on NSA’s “perception problem,” Alexander’s belief that the system is perfectly setup to detect and prevent all abuses and, amusingly, how he could not possibly know about Pinterest.
One exchange stood out, however, because it seemed to be the first time on a television program that Alexander had been asked about wanting the NSA to “collect everything.”
OLIVER: It’s been said that your motto was “collect everything.” Is that true?
ALEXANDER: For specific problems.
OLIVER: Right, but you do understand that “collect everything” is also the motto of a hoarder? That’s the fundamental principle which ends up with someone living alongside 1500 copies of newspapers from the 1950s and six mummified cats.
ALEXANDER: Umm, what I would tell you is let’s go to where that statement applied: Iraq. And the situation was 2006 and the issue was the number of casualties for us and our allies was rising.
On July 14, 2013, The Washington Post reported on Alexander’s “collect everything” or “collect it all” mentality. He had NSA collect “every Iraqi text message, phone call and email that could be vacuumed up by the agency’s powerful computers.”
Journalist Marcy Wheeler noted the story on the director’s “data fetish” was not just about preventing bomb attacks in Iraq. This mentality extended to operating on “banks’ networks and in their databases in search of malware that might compromise their systems.” This might protect “private companies’ property” but it would jeopardize the privacy of customers (and an executive who heard this proposal called it “kind of wild”).
With each report describing details of another set of documents from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the agency’s “hoarding complex,” as Thomas Drake, another NSA whistleblower, described it, has been further exposed. But no journalist has had the audacity to ask Alexander directly about this.
Indeed, a look at the handful of television interviews with Alexander that have aired since June 2013 shows that Alexander has not once been asked about this quote—either “collect everything” or “collect it all.”
Bret Baier of Fox News came closest to directly asking him about this on March 25, 2014, as he was about to retire.
BAIER: There is this perception, general, maybe amplified by the national media that the NSA listens to all phone calls and reads all e-mails.
ALEXANDER: I would get more respect if we could do all that. If you think about all the data that is out there, it’s wrong. We don’t do it.
BAIER: Not even close?
ALEXANDER: Not even close.
BAIER: You have the stuff coming in. I mean, it’s — you are bringing it all in. It is like a giant Hoover, right?
ALEXANDER: 215, remember, is call detail records that has a number to and from, the duration of the call and the date time. It’s just numbers. We don’t know whose number it is. We know the foreign terrorist’s number who is calling. If all of a sudden he calls my number, the FBI would want to know, why is Zawahiri calling Alexander. What is going with that? And they should know. We want them to know that. We want to give them that.
The FBI would have to determine who I am by going through a national security letter or to a FISA warrant to get that access to my records. So in that, what we serve as the alert, we don’t have Americans’ e-mails or their content of their phone calls in that database. It’s just numbers, it is just the call detail records.
Think of this in the old phone bills that you used to get that would list all the numbers you called. Take your name off the top and put the two phone numbers, put those in a database. That’s what we have. That’s it.
So when people say, well, you’re listening to everything in there or doing that, they’re wrong.
One of the key problems with that answer is he was only referring to one program. There are multiple programs that Snowden has revealed. And, of course, Baier didn’t ask him about his statement about collecting everything.
Alexander and then-CBS correspondent John Miller joined forces to do a kind of NSA infomercial for “60 Minutes” on December 13, 2013. Miller, a classic example of a revolving door journalist who is now working for the NYPD, only asked if all the phone numbers of Americans had to be collected to thwart terrorism. He accepted Alexander’s propaganda about how the phone records collection program could have prevented the 9/11 attacks had it been in place.
Trish Regan of Bloomberg News conducted an interview with Alexander on October 30, 2013. Regan asked no questions about whether NSA collects everything but Alexander claimed during one of his answers, “We don’t want to collect and we don’t collect the content of US person’s emails or phones, but that’s hyped out in the press and everybody says they must do this with everything. Think about it. We don’t have enough people to do that. Why would we do it? There’s no intelligence value.”
On June 23, 2013, only a few weeks after the first disclosures from Snowden were reported, George Stephanopoulos of ABC News interviewed Alexander. It had not been reported that Alexander possibly had an interest in collecting all the data in the world. However, Alexander did deny that the NSA was “willfully just collecting all sorts of data” in an effort to “canvas the whole world.”
It does not appear that Alexander ever went on NBC News or MSNBC for an interview nor did he appear on any CNN program to be interviewed.
Alexander probably was familiar with interviews with officials for “The Daily Show” or “The Colbert Report” and presumed it might be similar. He may have expected there would be attempts at humor at his expense, but it is unlikely that he expected the tenor of the interview to be as adversarial as it happened to be.
Being adversarial may have been a part of the schtick. The contempt and disparaging nature of the interview may have been intended to create humor, and Alexander may have been willing to tolerate it because he thought this was just Oliver being funny. Yet, that does not make it any less remarkable.
Alexander answered a bunch of questions that, if asked by a none-fake news anchor, probably would have led him to abruptly end the interview if he had been asked those questions. Perhaps, that’s the power of a show like Oliver’s.
Oliver can cheekily dress down officials, who deserve to be roasted publicly, and he can also in the process embarrass other news programs for not being willing to—without the plays at humor—audaciously confront government officials on television.