Former NSA head given $700,000 consulting deal from Saudi Arabia

09 May 2023 2 min. read

A consulting firm headed by former National Security Agency (NSA) chief Keith Alexander received a $700,000 contract from Saudi Arabia shortly after the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Newly released documents show that among around $2 million in consulting deals, Alexander’s consulting firm IronNet was awarded a contract from the Saudi government to advise the Kingdom on cyber security.

Notably, the contract was handed – and accepted – shortly after the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which according to some media reports had been ordered by Saudi leader Prince Mohammed bin Salman himself.

Former NSA head given $700,000 consulting deal from Saudi Arabia

The murder of Khashoggi, carried out in the Turkish embassy in Istanbul where the Washington Post columnist was living in exile, led to an international outcry and put a spotlight on the Saudi government’s authoritarian treatment of its critics.

The former NSA head of consulting services was reportedly destined for a division of the Prince Mohammed bin Salman College of Cyber Security that is engaged in offensive cyber operations. The college is believed to have been central in the plot to murder Khashoggi.

The link between Saudi cyber operations and the journalist’s murder is significant. An investigation by the Guardian showed that the Saudi government had hacked the phones of Khashoggi and members of his family both before and after he was murdered.

This surveillance was carried out using Pegasus spyware, a hacking tool developed by Israeli cyber intelligence firm NSO Group. The spyware has been used by governments around the world to spy on journalists and has been widely condemned, ultimately landing NSO Group on a US blacklist of companies seen as a threat to US national interests.

Alexander sat on the board of advisers of the Saudi cyber intelligence college, something for which he had to ask the US government’s permission because he formerly worked in a US government agency. The State Department appears to have approved his request in January 2019, three months after Khashoggi's assassination.

Other foreign countries have also hired former US military leaders for advisory services, including the United Arab Emirates, which hired around 280 former US military personnel as either military contractors or consultants.

While US president Joe Biden initially took a sharp position on the murder of Khashoggi, pledging to make the Kingdom a “pariah” state, his administration has since largely put their differences aside in a push to get the Saudis to increase oil production.

Increasing oil production would lower the global price of oil, which favours the US because inflation has made gas and other petroleum products more expensive for Americans. OPEC, of which Saudi Arabia is a member, recently announced cuts to oil production, which will raise the price of oil even more.