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My Dinner With NSA Director Keith Alexander - Forbes


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On July 30, 2013, I had the pleasure of having dinner with General Keith Alexander, Director of the National Security Agency. Just a few weeks earlier, NYU Law Professor Christopher Sprigman and I had called the NSA’s activities“criminal” in the digital pages of the New York Times, so I thought it was particularly gracious of him to sit with me. General Alexander is an engaging man and our conversation left me with an appreciation for a fundamental difference in perspective between defenders and critics of the NSA’s surveillance program: whether you believe that unchecked power inevitably corrupts, or rather believe that the sincere intentions of well-meaning individuals will protect us.

I have no doubt that Gen. Alexander loves this country as much as I do, or that his primary motivation is to protect our nation from terrorist attacks. “Never again,” he said over dinner.  But it may be that our deep differences stem from a fundamental disagreement about human nature.  I think Gen. Alexander believes that history is made by great individuals standing against evil.  I believe that brave people can make a difference, but that larger inexorable forces are often more important: history, economics, political and social systems, the environment. So I believe that power corrupts and that good people will do bad things when a system is poorly designed, no matter how well-intentioned they may be.  More than once, my dinner companions felt the need to reassure the DIRNSA that none of us thought he was a bad man, but that we thought the surveillance policies and practices were bad, and that eventually, inevitably, those policies and practices would lead to abuse.

Powerful people rarely believe that power corrupts.

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