Snowden hurt security, says agency chief
ASPEN — Recently revealed data-gathering programs of the National Security Agency have been effective in stopping terrorist attacks, and their revelation has resulted in “significant and irreversible damage to our nation,” the agency’s director said Thursday.
Speaking at the Aspen Security Forum, Gen. Keith Alexander addressed the fracas over leaks by Edward Snowden, a former employee of an NSA contractor, regarding mass collection of phone call data and other surveillance programs by the NSA.
Alexander said the result has been that the enemy has learned the NSA’s playbook for combating it.
“We have concrete proof … that terrorist groups and others are taking action, making changes, and it’s going to make our job tougher,” he said.
He said he thinks it’s good to have a debate on the surveillance programs, but added, “There is risk in having a debate on a national security issue. The adversary will learn what we’re trying to do so there’s some things that we can’t share.”
He said there has been a lot of misunderstanding about the NSA’s programs, including that the agency listens to everyone’s calls and reads everyone’s e-mails, something he said would be made nearly impossible by the sheer volume involved.
“How would you do that? And the answer is, that’s not logical, that would be a waste of our resources to get there,” he said.
He said the goal is to focus on “bad guys” who happen to use the same devices the rest of us do.
“They hide amongst us to kill our people. Our job is to stop them without impacting your civil liberties and privacy,” he said.
The NSA likewise has been criticized for use of its surveillance programs in other countries such as Brazil and Germany, but Alexander said the agency has helped other countries defend themselves through its efforts.
He added, “We’re a foreign intelligence agency. … We don’t listen to people’s phone calls in Brazil just for fun or read their emails. It would be operationally ineffective to do that. Nor do we do that in Germany.”
Alexander said the NSA is restricted in what it can do with metadata regarding phone call records, being able to look at it only if there’s a real suspicion of a connection to terrorist groups. It can use the information to determine with whom they’re communicating.
He said phone data and other surveillance has been used in cases including helping stop a plan by Najibulla Zazi to bomb the New York City subway. Some media reports have questioned the degree to which the controversial NSA programs contributed to foiling that plot.
Alexander said government agencies have an “extraordinary” record of preventing terrorism attacks in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
“What you can’t afford to do is what we did on 9/11 — not have enough information to connect the dots,” he said.
He said he’s open to ideas for better approaches than the current programs, such as providing even more oversight of them than the large amount he believes already occurs, or possibly obligating companies with phone and Internet data to preserve it in case it’s needed.
But he added, “It can’t be, ‘Well, let’s just stop doing it,’ because we already know that doesn’t work. We’ve got to have some program like this.”
Alexander also compared Snowden’s role to that of U.S. cryptologists, 20 of whom have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“They’re the heroes, not this leaker and others,” he said to widespread applause.