He may be a four-star Army general, but Alexander more closely resembles a head librarian than George Patton. His face is anemic, his lips a neutral horizontal line. Bald halfway back, he has hair the color of strong tea that turns gray on the sides, where it is cut close to the skin, more schoolboy than boot camp. For a time he wore large rimless glasses that seemed to swallow his eyes. Some combat types had a derisive nickname for him: Alexander the Geek.
Born in 1951, the third of five children, Alexander was raised in the small upstate New York hamlet of Onondaga Hill, a suburb of Syracuse. He tossed papers for the Syracuse Post-Standard and ran track at Westhill High School while his father, a former Marine private, was involved in local Republican politics. It was 1970, Richard Nixon was president, and most of the country had by then begun to see the war in Vietnam as a disaster. But Alexander had been accepted at West Point, joining a class that included two other future four-star generals, David Petraeus and Martin Dempsey. Alexander would never get the chance to serve in Vietnam. Just as he stepped off the bus at West Point, the ground war finally began winding down.
In April 1974, just before graduation, he married his high school classmate Deborah Lynn Douglas, who grew up two doors away in Onondaga Hill. The fighting in Vietnam was over, but the Cold War was still bubbling, and Alexander focused his career on the solitary, rarefied world of signals intelligence, bouncing from secret NSA base to secret NSA base, mostly in the US and Germany. He proved a competent administrator, carrying out assignments and adapting to the rapidly changing high tech environment. Along the way he picked up masters degrees in electronic warfare, physics, national security strategy, and business administration. As a result, he quickly rose up the military intelligence ranks, where expertise in advanced technology was at a premium.
In 2001, Alexander was a one-star general in charge of the Army Intelligence and Security Command, the military’s worldwide network of 10,700 spies and eavesdroppers. In March of that year he told his hometown Syracuse newspaper that his job was to discover threats to the country. “We have to stay out in front of our adversary,” Alexander said. “It’s a chess game, and you don’t want to lose this one.” But just six months later, Alexander and the rest of the American intelligence community suffered a devastating defeat when they were surprised by the attacks on 9/11. Following the assault, he ordered his Army intercept operators to begin illegally monitoring the phone calls and email of American citizens who had nothing to do with terrorism, including intimate calls between journalists and their spouses. Congress later gave retroactive immunity to the telecoms that assisted the government.
In 2003 Alexander, a favorite of defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, was named the Army’s deputy chief of staff for intelligence, the service’s most senior intelligence position. Among the units under his command were the military intelligence teams involved in the human rights abuses at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison. Two years later, Rumsfeld appointed Alexander—now a three-star general—director of the NSA, where he oversaw the illegal, warrantless wiretapping program while deceiving members of the House Intelligence Committee. In a publicly released letter to Alexander shortly after The New York Times exposed the program, US representative Rush Holt, a member of the committee, angrily took him to task for not being forthcoming about the wiretapping: “Your responses make a mockery of congressional oversight.”
Alexander also proved to be militant about secrecy. In 2005 a senior agency employee named Thomas Drake allegedly gave information to The Baltimore Sun showing that a publicly discussed program known as Trailblazer was millions of dollars overbudget, behind schedule, possibly illegal, and a serious threat to privacy. In response, federal prosecutors charged Drake with 10 felony counts, including retaining classified documents and making false statements. He faced up to 35 years in prison—despite the fact that all of the information Drake was alleged to have leaked was not only unclassified and already in the public domain but in fact had been placed there by NSA and Pentagon officials themselves. (As a longtime chronicler of the NSA, I served as a consultant for Drake’s defense team. The investigation went on for four years, after which Drake received no jail time or fine. The judge, Richard D. Bennett, excoriated the prosecutor and NSA officials for dragging their feet. “I find that unconscionable. Unconscionable,” he said during a hearing in 2011. “That’s four years of hell that a citizen goes through. It was not proper. It doesn’t pass the smell test.”)
But while the powers that be were pressing for Drake’s imprisonment, a much more serious challenge was emerging. Stuxnet, the cyberweapon used to attack the Iranian facility in Natanz, was supposed to be untraceable, leaving no return address should the Iranians discover it. Citing anonymous Obama administration officials, The New York Times reported that the malware began replicating itself and migrating to computers in other countries. Cybersecurity detectives were thus able to detect and analyze it. By the summer of 2010 some were pointing fingers at the US.
Natanz is a small, dusty town in central Iran known for its plump pears and the burial vault of the 13th-century Sufi sheikh Abd al-Samad. The Natanz nuclear enrichment plant is a vault of a different kind. Tucked in the shadows of the Karkas Mountains, most of it lies deep underground and surrounded by concrete walls 8 feet thick, with another layer of concrete for added security. Its bulbous concrete roof rests beneath more than 70 feet of packed earth. Contained within the bombproof structure are halls the size of soccer pitches, designed to hold thousands of tall, narrow centrifuges. The machines are linked in long cascades that look like tacky decorations from a ’70s discotheque.
To work properly, the centrifuges need strong, lightweight, well-balanced rotors and high-speed bearings. Spin these rotors too slowly and the critical U-235 molecules inside fail to separate; spin them too quickly and the machines self-destruct and may even explode. The operation is so delicate that the computers controlling the rotors’ movement are isolated from the Internet by a so-called air gap that prevents exposure to viruses and other malware.
In 2006, the Department of Defense gave the go-ahead to the NSA to begin work on targeting these centrifuges, according to The New York Times. One of the first steps was to build a map of the Iranian nuclear facility’s computer networks. A group of hackers known as Tailored Access Operations—a highly secret organization within the NSA—took up the challenge.
They set about remotely penetrating communications systems and networks, stealing passwords and data by the terabyte. Teams of “vulnerability analysts” searched hundreds of computers and servers for security holes, according to a former senior CIA official involved in the Stuxnet program. Armed with that intelligence, so-called network exploitation specialists then developed software implants known as beacons, which worked like surveillance drones, mapping out a blueprint of the network and then secretly communicating the data back to the NSA. (Flame, the complex piece of surveillance malware discovered by Russian cybersecurity experts last year, was likely one such beacon.) The surveillance drones worked brilliantly. The NSA was able to extract data about the Iranian networks, listen to and record conversations through computer microphones, even reach into the mobile phones of anyone within Bluetooth range of a compromised machine.
The next step was to create a digital warhead, a task that fell to the CIA Clandestine Service’s Counter-Proliferation Division. According to the senior CIA official, much of this work was outsourced to national labs, notably Sandia in Albuquerque, New Mexico. So by the mid-2000s, the government had developed all the fundamental technology it needed for an attack. But there was still a major problem: The secretive agencies had to find a way to access Iran’s most sensitive and secure computers, the ones protected by the air gap. For that, Alexander and his fellow spies would need outside help.
This is where things get murky. One possible bread crumb trail leads to an Iranian electronics and computer wholesaler named Ali Ashtari, who later confessed that he was recruited as a spy by the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service. (Israel denied the claim.) Ashtari’s principal customers were the procurement officers for some of Iran’s most sensitive organizations, including the intelligence service and the nuclear enrichment plants. If new computers were needed or routers or switches had to be replaced, Ashtari was the man to see, according to reports from semi-official Iranian news agencies and an account of Ashtari’s trial published by the nonprofit Iran Human Rights Voice.