From left, National Security Agency Director General Keith Alexander, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and Deputy Attorney General James Cole, talk as they take their seats on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 26, 2013, before the start of the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), and National Security Agency (NSA) call records.

Carolyn Kaster, Dml - Associated Press - Ap

NSA director defends surveillance programs

  • Article by: DAVID E. SANGER and THOM SHANKER
  • New York Times
  • October 12, 2013 - 10:13 PM


The director of the National Security Agency, Gen. Keith Alexander, said that to prevent terrorist attacks he saw no effective alternative to the NSA’s bulk collection of telephone and other electronic metadata from Americans. But he acknowledged that his agency now faced a new reality, and the possibility of congressional restrictions, after revelations about its operations. While offering a detailed defense of his agency’s work, Alexander — head of the military’s Cyber Command — said the broader lesson of the controversy over disclosures of secret NSA surveillance missions was that he and other top officials have to be more open in explaining the agency’s role, especially as it expands its mission into cyberoffense and cyberdefense. Here are excerpts from his interview:

On transparency: “Given where we are and all the issues that are on the table, I do feel it’s important to have a public, transparent discussion on cyber so that the American people know what’s going on. And in order to have that, they need to understand the truth about what’s going on.”

On misunderstanding about what information the agency collects and what it does not: “We, and that includes the press, have not informed the American people in such a way that they can make a right decision here. The way we’ve explained it to the American people has gotten them so riled up that nobody told them the facts of the ­program and the controls that go around it.

On vulnerabilities after public disclosures: He said the disclosures had allowed adversaries, whether foreign governments or terrorist organizations, to learn how to avoid detection by U.S. intelligence and had caused “significant and irreversible damage” to national security.

On setting a high bar for when the nation should use these powerful cybertools: “I see no reason to use offensive tools unless you’re defending the country or in a state of war, or you want to achieve some really important thing for the good of the nation and others.”

On specific cases: Alexander would not discuss any specific cases in which the United States had used those weapons, including the best-known example: its yearslong attack on Iran’s nuclear enrichment facility at Natanz. To critics of President Obama’s administration, that decision made it easier for China, Iran and other nations to justify their own use of ­cyberweapons.

On collecting “business records”: He said it would have been impossible to have made public, before the revelations by NSA leaker Edward Snowden, that the agency collected what it calls the “business records” of all telephone calls, and many other electronic communications, made in the United States. The agency is under rules preventing it from investigating that so-called ­haystack of data unless it has a “reasonable, articulable” justification, involving communications with terrorists abroad, he said.

On the agency’s end to a program in 2011 that collected the metadata of about 1 percent of all of e-mails sent in the United States: “We terminated it. It was not operationally relevant to what we needed.”

On confronting terrorism and cyberattacks: In both cases, he said, he was open to much of that work being done by private industry, which he said could be more efficient than ­government.

On a direct government role in filtering U.S. Internet traffic to prevent attacks: He said the tactic would be inefficient and ­ineffective. “I think it leads people to the wrong conclusion, that we’re reading their e-mails and trying to listen to their phone calls.”

On adhering to the law: “We followed the law, we follow our policies, we self-report, we identify problems, we fix them. And I think we do a great job, and we do, I think, more to protect people’s civil liberties and privacy than they’ll ever know.”

What’s next: Alexander, who became the NSA director in 2005, will retire early next year. The timing of his departure was set in March when his tour was extended for a third time, according to officials who said it had nothing to do with the surveillance controversy spawned by the leaks. The appointment of his successor is likely to be a focal point of congressional debate over whether the huge infrastructure that was built during his tenure will remain or begin to be restricted.


© 2018 Star Tribune