Leaks Damage National Security
Leaks Damage National
Security, NSA Director Says
By Claudette Roulo, American
Forces Press Service.
Washington D.C. – (APFS)
– June 28, 2013 – Recent media leaks have caused “significant and irreversible
damage” to U.S. security, the director of the National Security Agency said
yesterday in Baltimore.
Public discussion of NSA's tradecraft or the tools that
support its operations provides insights that the nation’s adversaries can and
do use, Army Gen. Keith B. Alexander told an audience at the Armed Forces
Communications and Electronics Association International Cyber Symposium.
“Those who wish us harm now know how we counter their
actions,” Alexander said. “These leaks have caused significant and irreversible
damage to our nation's security.
“The damage is real,” he continued. “I believe the
irresponsible release of classified information about these programs will have a
long-term detrimental impact on the intelligence community's ability to detect
future attacks. These leaks have inflamed and sensationalized for ignoble
purposes the work that the intelligence community does lawfully under strict
oversight and compliance.”
Explaining the programs exposed by the leaks, the general
said the 9/11 Commission found that the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the
United States succeeded because “the intelligence community could not connect
the dots, foreign and domestic.”
To address that failing, Alexander said, the intelligence
community set up and Congress authorized two programs. The first, Section 215 of
the PATRIOT Act of 2001, allows the government to collect telephone metadata for
foreign intelligence and international terrorism investigations. The second,
Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, allows the targeting,
for foreign intelligence purposes, of communications of foreign persons who are
Each program is subject to strict oversight procedures by all
three branches of the government, Alexander said.
“We understand and support the need to ensure we protect both
civil liberties and national security. It's not one or the other. It must be
both,” he said. “That's why we take oversight of these programs very seriously.”
According to a June 2012 report issued by the Senate Select
Intelligence Committee, the general said, the committee did not find any cases
of a government official willfully circumventing or violating the law while
using the access granted under these authorities.
Under Section 215, telephone metadata is collected from
service providers and placed into a “virtual lockbox,” the general explained.
“The only way NSA can go into that lockbox is if we have what is called
reasonable, articulable suspicion of a selector that is related to terrorism,”
In 2012, NSA approved about 300 selectors, such as telephone
numbers, to initiate queries into the virtual lockbox, Alexander said. For a
request to be approved, he said, “there has to be a foreign nexus, an
association with al-Qaida or other specified terrorist organizations.”
Alexander cited Operation High-Rise as an example of how this
process works in practice.
The NSA used a Section 702 authorization to compel a service
provider to turn over the emails of terrorists the agency was tracking in
Pakistan, he said. Armed with that information, Alexander said, analysts found
that an al-Qaida terrorist in Pakistan was emailing a person they believed to be
in Colorado, and that information was then turned over to the FBI.
The man in Colorado turned out to be Najibullah Zazi, the
general said. The FBI provided the NSA with Zazi’s phone number, which, combined
with the email connection to the al-Qaida operative, provided reasonable,
articulable suspicion for the NSA to access the virtual lockbox of telephone
metadata, Alexander said.
“We looked in that lockbox, and we found that Zazi was
talking to a guy in New York who had connections to other terrorist elements for
another operation,” he said. The access allowed the NSA to connect Zazi to other
potential terrorists as well, the general said.
“We got that information in early September 2009 for an
attack that was supposed to take place in mid-September,” Alexander told the
symposium audience. “It would have been the biggest al-Qaida attack on American
soil since 9/11. We were privileged and honored to be a part of disrupting that
plot. FAA 702 was the initial tip. That's how important these programs are.”
In 2010, Zazi pleaded guilty to planning to conduct one of
three coordinated suicide bombings on the New York City subway system during
America’s allies have benefitted from the surveillance
programs, as well, Alexander said.
Last week, he said, the NSA provided to Congress 54 cases “in
which these programs contributed to our understanding and, in many cases, helped
enable the disruption of terrorist plots in the U.S. and in over 20 countries
throughout the world.”
Of the 54 cases, 42 involved disrupted plots, the general
said. Twelve cases involved material support to terrorism, and 50 of the 54 led
to arrests or detentions.
Forty-one cases involved targets outside the United States.
“Twenty-five of these events occurred in Europe, 11 in Asia,
and five in Africa,” Alexander said. “Thirteen events had a homeland nexus. In
12 of those events, Section 215 contributed to our overall understanding and
help to the FBI, 12 of the 13. That's only where the business record FISA can
In all but one of the cases the NSA provided to Congress,
Section 702 data played a role or provided the initial tip, Alexander said. “A
significant portion -- almost half of our counterterrorism reporting -- comes
from Section 702,” he added.
The programs operate under a rigorous oversight framework,
the general said. To target the content of a U.S. person's communications
anywhere in the world, FISA’s provisions require a finding of probable cause
under a specific court order, he told the audience.
“These capabilities translate into significant information on
ongoing terrorist activities, with no willful violations of our law,” he said.
“I think that's something to be proud of. We have defended the nation 54 times
-- and our allies -- and we have ensured the protection of our civil liberties
and privacy and oversight by … all three branches of our government. I think
that's what the nation expects our government to do: disrupt terrorist
activities [and] defend our civil liberties and privacy.”
Keith B. Alexander
See also :
NSA head: Surveillance helped thwart more than 50 terror plots (Washington
Post, June 18, 2013).