NSA Gives $10 Billion Contract To Company With Ex-NSA Director on Its Board

I simply do not know how Amazon, which entirely coincidentally put Ret. Gen. Keith Alexander on the same board as Jeff Bezos, swung this one. PLUS: Neal Adams, RIP.

NSA Gives $10 Billion Contract To Company With Ex-NSA Director on Its Board
Keith Alexander, who is as surprised as you are. Win McNamee, via Getty

Edited by Sam Thielman

THIS WEEK IN ENTIRELY LEGAL CORRUPTION: The National Security Agency has awarded an extremely large data-environment contract to Amazon, a company on whose board sits the longest-ever-serving director of the National Security Agency.

That would be Keith Alexander, the retired Army four-star general who violated the Constitution at scale from 2005 to 2014. As hapless as Alexander seemed during the Edward Snowden saga, he's done well for himself. Per his Amazon bio, Alexander joined Amazon's board of directors in September 2020.

Within months of leaving NSA under extreme controversy—getting heckled at Black Hat by the hackers he was trying to recruit is one low point—Alexander went into the cybersecurity field. This seems a lot like profiting off his publicly-subsidized background running one of the world's surveillance giants. He wouldn't be the first senior NSA official to do so.

But I have been led to understand that oligarchic corruption only happens in Russia, so I'm sure that's not what's happening here in the honest world of U.S. defense/intelligence contracting.

Alexander's company, IronNet Security, sells businesses software to harden their data networks. Its network-detection-and-response and behavioral-analytics suites are probably not things I can describe with any technical fidelity, but they operate along the same principle of scale familiar to surveillance capitalists like Amazon and surveillance agencies like NSA. "The more customers on IronNet's platform, the stronger IronNet's value proposition becomes," assessed an investment adviser who's alarmed by the company's missed growth projections and the pace at which it burns through cash. Still, on an earnings call earlier this month, Alexander boasted about reaping $27.5 million in revenue during IronNet's last quarter.

On that Apr. 6 earnings call, the retired general referenced a "delayed" contract renewal—"that is not lost," he emphasized—with "a branch of the military whose contract migrated and will be expanded upon under another government contracting entity as a strategic opportunity."

That sure sounds like the NSA's WANDS contract, which emerged from the wreckage of a much-contested Pentagon cloud effort known by the stupid acronym JEDI. WANDS, or WILDANDSTORMY, is meant to be an "integrated, interoperable, and secure cloud ecosystem” for the NSA, with a primary focus on what the Government Accountability Office (GAO) called "the provision of cloud services for NSA’s top secret/sensitive compartmented information (TS/SCI) fabric"—i.e., data carrying the highest level of classification.

On Wednesday, Amazon got that WANDS contract, which is worth up to $10 billion. Or rather, got it again, for the second time since Alexander joined the board. Last August, NSA gave WANDS to Amazon, but Microsoft, which submitted a slightly lower bid, immediately challenged the award, much as Amazon did when the Pentagon attempted to award JEDI to Microsoft. In October, the GAO concluded that Microsoft had a point, and in December published its reasoning: NSA's assessment of Microsoft's "technical proposal … was unreasonable."

But that was then! NSA told NextGov on Wednesday that it "reevaluated the proposals and made a new best value decision." That decision just so happened to recapitulate NSA's original judgment that an absurdly large data-management contract should go to the surveillance-capitalist giant that has its former director on the board.

AH, KEITH ALEXANDER STORIES, making me feel young again. Or at least like a 33-year-old reading Snowden-leaked NSA and GCHQ documents in that crucible of 2013. Back then, Alexander was ineffective at explaining away bulk surveillance. His civilian deputy at NSA, Chris Inglis, was much smoother. I remember vividly Inglis' testimony to Congress that if NSA was to have a hope of stopping terrorists, it needed "the whole haystack," which is to say access to everyone's data. Anyway, Inglis is the guy Joe Biden picked to be his National Cyber Director.

DID I EVER CALL THIS. Just saying.

HEY, IT’S SAM. The thing in the world I like most to write about is comics—how they work, the extreme weirdos who take extraordinary pains to make them, the way everything from the art to the copyright gets stolen from artists by entertainment megacompanies. It’s an endlessly fascinating world. Today it is slightly less interesting because one of the titans of the industry, Neal Adams, has died at the age of 80.

If you have an idea of what Batman looks like, that's probably because of Adams. His work with the late Denny O’Neil in the 1970’s redefined the character’s appearance and his relationships—Batman had messy romances for the first time under Adams and O’Neil—and set the stage for Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of Batman films, which weave together several of the more interesting O’Neil/Adams stories. He was socially progressive at a moment when comics were not especially progressive, drawing stories for O’Neil in which Green Lantern and Green Arrow fought not supervillains but social ills. (They didn’t get it right every time, but their batting average was pretty high.) He drew a gorgeous oversized volume about Superman meeting Muhammad Ali, and for a while his style was so influential it was simply The Style of superhero comics. Every panel had movement and direction to it.

Neal also made the world of comics fairer. He lit a fire under executives at Marvel who had refused to return Jack Kirby’s original artwork until Kirby, the visionary storyteller on whose work Marvel depended, agreed to let the company make movies out of his creations without paying him for the rights. Much—though not all—of that art was returned, not just to Kirby but to John Romita, John Buscema, and many of the other luminaries whose names have nearly vanished behind the Marvel logo.

And Neal was basically the meanest sonofabitch you could ever hope to meet if you went to a comic-book convention hoping to ask legendary pros to assess your work—in fact, he viewed dressing down younger artists as a professional obligation. I interviewed him a few years ago, which pissed him off. Now that he’s gone, I feel a sort of responsibility to make as many of his words public as I can, so here are a few more, on why he made Frank Miller cry when Frank went to him for advice as a young and apparently terrible artist. (Yes, there is more, and yes, I’m looking for a berth for that, too.)

I went over [Frank’s] pages and I pointed things out, and I spent time. I spent about an hour. I figured that was it. He was gonna go, it was too much. Obviously, I had beaten him up so bad he was gonna go and cry. Which he probably did. [chuckles.] That's terrible. I think my daughter said that he cried.

The problem is that if I'm gonna spend time with somebody, I have a responsibility. Basically, if young artists go to talk to [professional] artists at conventions, or wherever they talk to them, and show their work, the [pros], being human beings, lie to them. They just lie. It's not because they're bad! They don't want to hurt somebody. They don't want to offend. And they want to encourage. They're all nice guys. They're all really nice. But the truth is that being nice doesn't help anybody. It's gonna just put off the disappointment. People come to me later and they'll say things like, 'I dunno! So-and-so told me that if I just worked on this and I worked on that [it would fix all the problems], but they still don't like my stuff!' And I say, 'Well, what if they lied to you?' I mean... because they're nice, they don't want to offend you, they don't want to make you cry. But have you considered that? And they look at me in surprise like I'm telling them this terrible secret. Then I have to tell people, Look, they're just lying. They're nice guys lying to you, trying to be -- it's like a dad. He cares, so he doesn't want to hurt you, but the truth is that they're not telling you the truth! The truth is that you don't know anything and you have to learn stuff and it's a long, hard, evil process! And if you want to learn you have to do it.

Well, Frank went away. A week later, my daughter comes in and she says 'Dad. Frank Miller's back.'