WASHINGTON — The director of the National Security Agency portrayed the secret collection of millions of U.S. telephone records each day as a limited program designed to thwart terrorist plots, saying the agency does not search the data without a reasonable suspicion of a terrorist connection.
Testifying on Capitol Hill for the first time since news reports exposed the NSA program last week, Gen. Keith Alexander said the provision in the Patriot Act that authorizes the collection of so-called business records, including calling records, has helped prevent or disrupt “dozens of terrorist plots.” He said he would provide more details in coming days.
He told the Senate Appropriations Committee that “only a few” intelligence reports a year are based on U.S. phone records – “a handful.”
Under questioning from Democrats and Republicans, Alexander, who also heads the Pentagon’s U.S. Cyber Command, downplayed any privacy risk from the NSA’s requests for telephony metadata – detailed records of each call but not their contents.
The databank allows the NSA to “go backward in time” to search for possible links in a terrorism investigation, Alexander said.
The agency won’t search the archive “unless we have some reasonable articulable suspicion about a terrorist organization,” he said. “Once we have that, we can see who this guy was talking to in the United States. But if you didn’t collect that, how would you know who he was talking to?”
If an American suspect emerges, that information is turned over to the FBI, Alexander said.
He added: “It’s a very deliberate process. We don’t get to look at the data. We don’t get to swim through the data.”
The NSA has gathered records from U.S. phone companies since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, although the current program began seven years ago after the law was modified.
The Guardian newspaper of Britain last week revealed the secret program, and published an order marked “Top Secret” from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court authorizing the collection on a “daily, ongoing” basis. On Sunday, a 29-year-old NSA contractor, Edward Snowden, disclosed that he had leaked the material to the newspaper because he viewed surveillance of Americans as morally wrong.
Alexander argued that the program was legal and appropriate.
“I think what we’re doing to protect American citizens here is the right thing,” he said. “We aren’t trying to hide it. We’re trying to protect America.”
Alexander was asked how Snowden, a computer expert who worked for Booz Allen Hamilton until he was fired Monday, had access to so much classified information.
The NSA outsourced its information technology infrastructure about 14 years ago, he replied.
“As a consequence, many in government have system administrators who have contractors running their networks,” he said. “This individual was a system administrator with access to key parts of the network. This is something we have to fix.”
Alexander later added that “great harm has already been done” by the leaks “and the consequence is our security is jeopardized.” Now, he said, the government has to show “it is doing the right thing” in protecting civil liberties and privacy.
–Ken Dilanian, Los Angeles Times