A behind-the-scenes engineer may have masterminded the federal government’s controversial surveillance and data gathering programs, according to Foreign Policy magazine.
In a long profile of National Security Agency Director Keith Alexander, James Heath, who has served as Alexander’s scientific aid all the way back to the Netscape era, is described as Alexander’s sidekick, working with the NSA head throughout his tenure to build an “information empire.”
The two first started working together in 1995, when Heath served as Alexander’s scientific aid as the general commanded the U.S. Army’s 525th Military Intelligence Brigade. Since then, Heath has remained hidden in the shadows, but played an integral role in data-mining operations such as PRISM.
Alexander continuously sought Heath’s advice and relied on him to do the jobs that other engineers hesitated to take on. A former NSA technical director identified only as “George” described Heath as someone who “didn’t mind breaking some eggs to make an omelet.”
George believed that their shared ambitions and similar mindsets is what made the two longtime partners. “He couldn’t do that on his own, but General Alexander could. They brought a sense of needing to get things done. They were a dynamic duo,” he continued.
Alexander and Heath’s mutual obsession with big data and alleged willingness to bend the rules in order to build ambitious systems is what landed Heath the nickname as Alexander’s “mad scientist” or “evil genius.” Foreign Policy quoted another former intelligence officer as saying, “He’s smart, crazy, and dangerous. He’ll push the technology to the limits to get it to do what he wants.”
Some criticized Heath’s spending habits. “He moved fairly fast and loose with money and spent a lot of it,” one retired officer told Foreign Policy. “He doubled the size of the Information Dominance Center and then built another facility right next door to it. They didn’t need it. It’s just what Heath and Alexander wanted to do.”
The officer described the building as a “center in search of a customer.”
“There’s two ways of looking at these guys,” another officer told Foreign Policy. “Two visionaries who took risks and pushed the intelligence community forward. Or as two guys who blew a monumental amount of money.”
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