NSA Chief Urges Public Debate of Terrorist Surveillance
NSA Chief Urges Public
Debate of Terrorist Surveillance
By Cheryl Pellerin, American Forces Press
Washington D.C. – (AFPS)
– June 13, 2013 – Now that the existence of classified National Security Agency
data-gathering efforts have been leaked to the public, the head of U.S. Cyber
Command and NSA said yesterday he wants the public to understand the programs "so
they can see what we're doing and what the results of it are."
The National Security Agency at Fort Meade, Maryland (NSA photo)
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 U.S. 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
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
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
"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,
"Because he was in the United States," Alexander continued, "the
way we treated it [then] is that he's a U.S. person, so we had no information on
him. If we didn't collect that [information] ahead of time, we couldn't make
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 U.S. 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 U.S.
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."
Army Gen. Keith B. Alexander
Special Report: Cybersecurity
NSA head: ‘Dozens’ of terror events prevented