The Complex

Hostile Takeover: Now the NSA Wants to Snoop on Wall Street, too

You might think that Gen. Keith Alexander, the director of the National Security Agency, would be looking to lower his agency's profile after a stream of embarrassing leaks about its surveillance activities. Instead, he's doubling down, asking for new powers to secure the U.S. financial industry -- and using some rather suspect arguments to support his demands.

In public remarks in Washington on Tuesday, Alexander said that eventually, and likely in the midst of a crisis, policymakers will have to decide under what conditions the NSA can take action to stop a major cyberattack on U.S. businesses or critical sectors of the economy.

"That's where we're going to end up at some point," he said. Using the financial services sector as an example, Alexander said, "You have to have the rules set up so you can defend Wall Street."

Drawing an analogy to how the military detects an incoming missile with radar and other sensors, Alexander imagined the NSA being able to spot "a cyberpacket that's about to destroy Wall Street." In an ideal world, he said, the agency would be getting real-time information from the banks themselves, as well as from the NSA's traditional channels of intelligence, and have the power to take action before a cyberattack caused major damage.

The analogy was a stretch.

For starters, what's a "cyberpacket"? Presumably Alexander meant a sophisticated computer worm or virus designed to disrupt a computer or destroy the data inside it. (Maybe like the one his agency reportedly helped design to destroy centrifuges in an Iranian nuclear facility.) But the idea that a single, tiny packet could wipe out Wall Street is laughable. That's like saying a paintball can take out a tank.

Could a hacker really take out Wall Street in one fell cyberswoop? Current and former intelligence officials have warned that a determined adversary could manipulate or erase electronic data in the computers of banks, clearinghouses, or stock exchanges, undermining confidence in the banking system and triggering a nationwide economic panic. The damage might be severe, but presumably temporary.

Alexander seemed to suggest it would be permanent or long-lasting. The general is one of the most technologically knowledgeable officials in the intelligence community. So should we conclude that Wall Street really is at risk of a catastrophic cyberattack? Or that Alexander is engaging in a little old-fashioned fear-mongering to drum up support for his policies?

Under current authorities, Alexander said, the NSA has permission to act to defend networks. But any offensive actions must be approved by the secretary of defense and the president. Alexander didn't explicitly call for new offensive authorities. But if U.S. banks were under a major cyberattack, the NSA would almost certainly have to take some offensive action to repel it, such as trying to shut down the source of the attack.

If the NSA is only allowed to act after an attack has occurred, "that doesn't make sense," Alexander said. "So we need that capability" to act before the damage is done.

Alexander spoke in an onstage interview hosted by Politico and Raytheon, the defense and intelligence contractor.

This is not the first time Alexander has proposed using the NSA to beef up financial security in the United States. Two years ago, in a meeting with financial company executives, Alexander proposed a more aggressive form of NSA-led defense, in which the agency would install monitoring equipment on the networks of banks. The executives resisted that proposal, which they felt overstepped the NSA's legal authorities and might violate the U.S. Constitution's ban on warrantless surveillance if the monitoring were performed without a court order.

In his remarks on Tuesday, Alexander also said that a pilot program to share information about malware and malicious hackers with defense contractors, so that they can better defend themselves against cyberintrusions, should be expanded to other critical industries. The Defense Industrial Base initiative is led by the Homeland Security Department, but most of the threat reporting and analysis that's given to companies comes from the NSA.

"I would expand it far beyond" the defense industrial base, Alexander said, to include the main Internet service providers that carry much of the nation's Internet traffic.

Alexander acknowledged that the NSA had lost some public trust and that it might not be easy to persuade lawmakers that the agency's powers should be expanded, rather than curtailed. But he repeated earlier statements, made in public and before Congress, that public reaction to the NSA's surveillance mission is based on "sensationalized" and misinformed press accounts of NSA documents leaked by former contractor Edward Snowden.

Alexander said he is open to some modifications of existing surveillance programs, particularly one that collects all telephone records in the United States and stores them at the NSA for up to five years. Alexander said he would be comfortable storing the data somewhere else or requiring more reports on how the data is used, but that the NSA's surveillance work should not end. "I think the authorities should stay intact," he said.

Alexander noted that the NSA is hiring for a new official to oversee privacy and civil liberties matters and that 67 people have applied for it. But he worried that the continuing government shutdown, which has caught federal employees in the middle of a political fight, might deter people from coming to work for the government.

"The most damage is to the morale of the [NSA] workforce," Alexander said of the shutdown. The general extolled the expertise and dedication of NSA employees and said it is unfair to ask people living paycheck to paycheck to forgo their salary indefinitely. "We're making it hard for them to stay with the government, and that's wrong. That's absolutely wrong," Alexander said.

And, he cautioned, future NSA recruits may be taking note. "How do you get good people to come into government when you treat them like that?" Alexander asked.

Despite the dire mood in Washington, Alexander managed some levity. When questions shifted from the shutdown to NSA leaker Edward Snowden, the general quipped, "Shutdown Snowden? I'm with you on that one."

Mark Wilson / Getty Images News

National Security

Meet The Army’s Tricked-Out, Super-Fast Stealth Copters of 2030

In the not-so-distant future, U.S. special operators, like those who used scuba gear boats and SUVs to go after terrorists this weekend, may be carried into combat by quiet, ultra-fast helicopters that bear only a passing resemblance to today's models.

The Army is trying to revolutionize a chopper fleet that hasn't changed all that much in the last 30 years. Four companies are trotting out designs to make it happen. One proposed aircraft looks like a minivan with rotors; another, like a V-22 Osprey tiltrotor on steroids. There's also sleek, stealthy-looking chopper. And the last resembles an awkward cross between a UH-60 Black Hawk and a V-22.

The Army last week signed "technology investment agreements" with the four firms -- a Bell-Lockheed Martin team, a Boeing-Sikorsky team, Karem Aircraft and AVX aviation -- to develop prototypes that will compete to be the basis for the ground service's light and medium-sized helicopters of the 21st Century.

For years, Army aviation leaders have been lamenting the fact that the service has not purchased a brand new helicopter design since the introduction of the AH-64 Apache in the 1980s. Besides the V-22 -- the aircraft that flies like an airplane but takes off and lands like a helicopter by pivoting its giant engines skyward -- almost all of the choppers used by the U.S. military today are based on designs from the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. Service officials will tell you that this has led to a sort of stagnation in the state of military helicopter technology, especially when compared to the giant leaps ahead in technology the Air Force and Navy have seen with the advent of revolutionary stealth jets and drones.

To remedy this, the service has kicked off a long-term project called Joint Multirole (JMR) aimed at developing a radically new crop of choppers all based on a similar design that do everything from hunt bad guys to haul troops and cargo. The new choppers must be able to fly at least 265 miles per hour -- double the top speed of your average helicopter. They also have to be able to hover at altitudes of up to 6,000-feet in 95 degree temperature; a difficult feat for many helicopters. The choppers must also be quieter than today's helicopters. All four companies have nine months to flesh out their designs, after which, the Army will select two to be built and flying by 2018. The Army wants the new aircraft in service by 2030 or so.

Here's a look at each of the designs.

Karem's proposal, the TR36TD Optimum Speed Tiltrotor (OSTR), strongly resembles a beefed up V-22. Karem claims the OSTR will be able to fly at speeds of up to 414 miles-per-hour and climb and hover higher and fly longer than other rotorcraft. (Karem was founded by Abe Karem, the man who designed the MQ-1 Predator drone.) For now, these are just claims since Karem doesn't have a single aircraft built.

Then there's the startup company AVX Aircraft. They are offering a helicopter (also shown at the top of the article) with a fuselage shaped like a minivan powered by a stack of two main rotors on top and two fan-like propellers in the back of the chopper designed to push it to speed the Army needs, all this for a "very attractive price." While the three year old company is staffed by a number of chopper industry veterans, AVX, like Karem, has yet to build an aircraft.

Next up is the Bell Helicopter-Lockheed Martin team's proposed V-280 Valor tiltrotor. While both of these companies have a ton of experience building aircraft -- Bell actually builds with wing and engines for the V-22 -- they don't have a prototype of the Valor. The "3rd Generation Tiltrotor" will apparently "deliver twice the speed and range, with enhanced safety margins and hover performance at altitude," according to Bell's marketing material for the awkward-looking craft.

Finally, there's the Sikorsky Boeing team that's competing with a design based on its experimental X-2, which is the world's fastest helicopter, flying at speeds up to 290 miles per hour. Sikorsky's concept calls for a sleek craft with two rotors sitting on top of the fuselage and one large propellor at the tail that will push the chopper along. It's unclear whether the aircraft will include technology found on the stealth versions of Sikorsky's MH-60 Black Hawks used by the U.S. Army.

It's important to note that Sikorsky is the only company that has a prototype flying. The rest of these crazy designs haven't left the engineers' computers. This may give the Connecticut-based company a leg up in the contest.

The Army has set out a pretty ambitious timeline for buying a revolutionary class of new choppers given the fact that it took nearly 30 years, 36 lives, and billions more dollars than expected to get the Pentagon's last brand new rotorcraft design, the V-22, into service. With budgets tightening, it may be incredibly difficult for the ground service to find the cash to justify building a brand new class of chopper, especially when it's been successfully using upgraded versions of old models for decades.

AVX, Karem Aviation, Sikorsky, Bell Helicopter