Why was America’s top spy also a fertilizer day-trader?

Just re-balancing his portfolio?
Just re-balancing his portfolio?
Image: Reuters/Gary Cameron
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Fertilizer is a strategic commodity, and that’s no load of manure.

In fact, it’s potash—a mineral salt mined from the ground to add nitrogen to industrial fertilizer production. In the past several years, the production of this valued commodity has been shaken up: In 2013, an informal cartel between two companies in Belarus and Russia that had dominated the industry was shattered—probably by Chinese pressure—and the Russian company’s CEO was held hostage by the government in Belarus, at least until Russian oligarch (and NBA franchise-owner) Mikhail Prokhorov bought his freedom.

You can imagine, between the importance of the resource and the involvement of so many state-connected companies, not to mention the long history of political intrigue around the mineral, that American intelligence would be keeping an eye on the industry. And it was, although perhaps for different reasons than you might think: In 2008, general Keith Alexander, then the head of the National Security Agency, the US electronic surveillance hub, made several specific trades of stock in potash firms while otherwise holding mostly mutual funds and American tech investments.

The speculation included selling shares of a big Canadian producer and a Chinese, state-owned aluminum firm frequently linked to potash deals (this, six months before a major  industry downturn) and buying stock in an American producer before selling again without any apparent gain. Indeed, none of the investments, revealed in disclosure forms the NSA initially tried to protect as classified, provided much profit to Alexander, and government ethics reviews haven’t found any wrongdoing. But it is surprising that Alexander, a US official, would be investing in foreign firms in a highly opaque and politicized industry.

Foreign Policy reporter Shane Harris, who wrote about Alexander at the time of the stock sales, suggests a trigger for the trades might have been the NSA’s growing knowledge of Russian and Chinese hacking on behalf of state-owned companies, and increasing US engagement with cyber espionage overall. NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden has repeatedly said that the NSA engages in industrial espionage; US officials say that any commercial information gathered by federal intelligence agencies is used purely for strategic reasons and isn’t shared with American firms.

Alexander, who’s also been criticized for hiring an NSA official to work part-time at his consulting firm, had no comment on the Foreign Policy story and did not immediately return a message Quartz left at his firm.