Gen. Keith Alexander: We Will Miss You

By Michael Chertoff
Saturday, March 15, 2014, 6:45 PM

Throughout American history occasional strategic thinkers have transformed the way we think about new domains of warfare and security. Alfred Thayer Mahan conceived of the geostrategic role of sea power in a way that deeply influenced ideas about the role and importance of naval capabilities. General Billy Mitchell predicted the revolutionary effects of air power on 20th century warfare.

As he steps down from office, General Keith Alexander is chiefly known in public as the man unfortunate enough to have headed NSA in era of Edward Snowden. But years from now, students of cyber warfare and cyber security will look upon Gen. Alexander, who has also served as the first head of Cyber Command, as a figure whose influence in the domain of cyberspace was similar to those named above.

Gen. Alexander became head of NSA in 2005. The moment was pivotal for American security strategy. The nation was embroiled in conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. The threat of terrorist attacks against the US were high---indeed, the next year we foiled a plot to explode multiple airliners flying from the UK to North America. But less obviously, there was increased threat in cyber attacks, including the theft of intellectual property.  Responsibility for deploying our signals intelligence and for fashioning a response to cyber threats fell onto Gen. Alexander's plate.

When the story of the war against terror is written with historical perspective, the role of NSA under Gen. Alexander will figure prominently. But at the same time, he focused on the more complex but equally fraught question of protecting our cyber-based infrastructure.

When I was a relatively new Secretary of Homeland Security, General Alexander and the then-Director of National Intelligence, Admiral Michael McConnell, invited me to NSA to get tutored in the new domain of cyber security. What emerged was the recognition that in an increasingly networked world, in which industrial control systems and physical infrastructure are linked to the internet, a cyber-based attack could have physical and economic effects on our society every bit as devastating as the effects of the attacks of 9/11.

As I worked with General Alexander over the next several years I increased my admiration for his calm but forceful advocacy of the strategic importance of cyber as a security domain. He was a critical figure in fashioning and advocating for the Comprehensive National Cyber Security Initiative, designed to take a comprehensive approach to securing our networks. That initiative was ultimately adopted by both President Bush and President Obama. As important, he was a tireless advocate for cyber command as a military establishment that could defend our country in cyberspace, as on land, sea and air. That institution was inaugurated under President Obama and Secretary Bob Gates.

I've worked with General Alexander since I left office, to the close of his unprecedented nine-year tenure as head of NSA. He has not only stood up Cyber Command and directed NSA, but he has tirelessly advocated for the private sector to assume its responsibility for protecting the infrastructure that connects to the internet.

In no small measure, he has been critical in keeping this country safe.

General Alexander will soon leave, and he will leave a profound legacy. While dealing with Edward Snowden's perfidious acts has undoubtedly occupied much of the last few months of his term, in the long view, his contribution is much more significant. He has articulated and implemented a road map for addressing what is likely to be the strategic challenge of the next several decades: How we protect our increasingly networked world in a way that preserves our freedom and way of life.

Michael Chertoff has served as Secretary of Homeland Security, as a Judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, and as Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division. He is Chairman and Co-Founder of the Chertoff Group.