US NSA Chief Urges Public Debate of Terrorist Surveillance

The National Security Agency at Fort Meade, Marylan

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Washington, DC – Now that the existence of classified National Security Agency data-gathering efforts have been leaked to the public, the head of US Cyber Command and NSA said yesterday (June 12) he wants the public to understand the programs “so they can see what we’re doing and what the results of it are.” Among the results, Army Gen. Keith B. Alexander told the full Senate Appropriations Committee, is the disruption or contributions to the disruption in the United States and abroad of “dozens of terrorist events.”

Alexander testified along with interagency partners from the Homeland Security Department, the FBI and the National Institute of Standards and Technology during a hearing that US Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, the committee chair, convened to discuss preparing for and responding to the enduring cyber threat.

But several senators — given their first chance to question Alexander since NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked information to newspapers June 6 about classified surveillance practices — abruptly asked about the leaks and about legislation authorizing the practices.

In his leaks to the media, Snowden described two NSA surveillance programs authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which Congress created in 2008. Section 702 of FISA authorizes access to records and other items of foreign targets located outside the United States under court oversight.

Section 215 of the Patriot Act broadened FISA to allow the FBI director or another high-ranking official there to apply for orders to produce telephone records, books and other materials to help with terrorism investigations.

Revelations about the programs have launched a debate nationwide about privacy, because Section 215 allows NSA to collect something called metadata — information about call length and connections — for phone calls that occur inside the United States and between the United States and other countries.

“These authorities complement each other in helping us identify different terrorist actions and … disrupt them,” Alexander told the senators. “If you want to get the content [of the phone calls], you’d have to get a court order. In any of these programs … we [need] court orders for doing that, with oversight by Congress, by the courts and by the administration.”

Some of the senators asked for details about terrorism cases that the NSA surveillance programs have helped, and Alexander named a few but said he intended to bring a classified list of them to today’s closed session of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

But Alexander said he also wanted to provide an unclassified version — if he could make that happen, he said — this week that could be released to the public.

“I think this is an area where we have to give [Congress and the American people] the details. They need to understand it so they can see what we’re doing and what the results of it are,” he added.

“We all had this concern coming out of 9/11 — how are we going to protect the nation,” the general said, “because we did get intercepts on [Khalid Muhammad Abdallah al-Mihdhar], but we didn’t know where he was. We didn’t have the data collected to know that he was a bad person.”

Mihdhar was one of five hijackers of American Airlines Flight 77 who flew that aircraft into the Pentagon as part of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“Because he was in the United States,” Alexander continued, “the way we treated it [then] is that he’s a US person, so we had no information on him. If we didn’t collect that [information] ahead of time, we couldn’t make those connections.”

Now through its surveillance programs, the NSA creates a set of telephone metadata from all over the United States, and only under specific circumstances can officials query the data, he said. “And every time we do, it’s auditable by the [congressional] committees, by the Justice Department, by the court and by the administration,” Alexander said. “We get oversight from everybody on this.”

The collection of US telephone metadata is one of the elements that should be debated nationally, Alexander said, but he described why it was helpful in terrorism cases to do so.

“Let’s take Mihdhar,” he said. “[Congress] had authorized us to get Mihdhar’s phones in California, but Mihdhar was talking to the other four teams [in other parts of the country].

“Today, under the business-record FISA, because we had stored that data in the database, we now have what we call reasonable, articulable suspicion. We could take that [phone] number and go backwards in time and see who he was talking to,” the general continued. “And if we saw there were four other groups, we wouldn’t know who those people were — we’d only get the numbers. We’d say, ‘This looks of interest,’ and pass it to the FBI. We don’t look at US identities. We only look at the connections.”

Alexander said he would like to see a nationwide debate on such topics for a couple of reasons.

“I think what we’re doing to protect American citizens here is the right thing,” he said. “Our agency takes great pride in protecting this nation and our civil liberties and privacy, and doing it in partnership with this committee, with this Congress, and with the courts. We aren’t trying to hide it. We’re trying to protect America, so we need your help in doing that. This isn’t something that’s just NSA or the administration. … This is what our nation expects our government to do for us.”

Alexander said he’s not the only official involved in getting information declassified, but added, that if he can make it happen, he will. “I do think what we’re doing does protect American civil liberties and privacy,” he told the Senate panel.

“The issue is [that] to date, we’ve not been able to explain it, because it’s classified, so that issue is something we’re wrestling with.” “How do we explain this and still keep the nation secure?” he asked. “That’s the issue that we have in front of us.” 

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