NSA Director Keith Alexander

NSA Director Plays Offense: Let Us Spy, We Aren’t Reading Your Messages

Article submitted by guest contributor Ezra Van Auken.
NSA Director Keith Alexander

Looking to ease the Americans’ tensions and primarily concerned with federal spying, National Security Agency (NSA) director Keith Alexander took on lawmakers this past Wednesday, hoping to bring understanding to the saga of mass surveillance. Rather than opening discussion to possible NSA reform, more innovative surveillance, or anything of the sort, NSA’s Alexander told a Senate committee that there’s no better way at this time.

The NSA director compared his agency’s unfavorable spying to holding a hornet’s nest, and said that while officials are being stung, there isn’t an alternative solution. Alexander explained that prior to the September 11th attacks, NSA officials had no ability to track communications between foreign and domestic bystanders. While professing that current NSA programs “connect the dots”, Alexander said there’s a balance between privacy and spying.

Civil liberties proponents including groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which have been putting up a fight since Snowden’s leaks, would beg to differ. Both advocacy groups have aimed at the federal government, filing lawsuits against the NSA and White House. Of course, Snowden’s leaks have only solidified claims by privacy groups, giving ample reason to take action.

Reapplying his position to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Alexander noted, “And [he] think[s] these programs have been effective.” Once again, however, media and advocacy group objections have shown a much different story than “effective”. Most significant was the claim by Alexander, earlier in the year, that NSA officials had foiled 54 terror-related incidents. The claim by Alexander and the President was quickly refuted.

Declassified charts from July provide insight on what exactly the NSA story is behind the alleged 54 thwarted plots. Off the bat, the declassified material reads, the NSA “has contributed to the [US government’s] understanding of terrorism activities and, in many cases, has enabled the disruption of potential terrorist events at home and abroad.” And whether or not Alexander and Obama forgot the NSA’s numbers, it certainly wasn’t 54.

Rather, the number is 42, and only the NSA identified four of the foiled plots. Elliot and Meyer of ProPublica explained that “The NSA itself has been inconsistent on how many plots it has helped prevent and what role the surveillance programs played.” Throwing more fudge onto the NSA’s success, director Alexander decided once again to make bold claims behind cameras – this time in front of CBS’s 60 Minutes with John Miller.

For any viewer who watched the CBS program, conflicted interests were glowing. Miller, the reporter assigned to interviewing Alexander, actually spent years inside the National Intelligence for Analytic Transformation and Technology as associate deputy director, and prior to that, held position in the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Ironically, the entire interview sounded like a shock to Miller, who threw Alexander softballs.

Despite the Snowden storm of NSA information, Alexander and Miller spent Sunday night’s CBS segment talking as if information never existed. He asked the NSA director whether or not it’s true that “There is a perception out there that the NSA is widely collecting the content of the phone calls of Americans.” Alexander, shrugging the obvious, replied, “No, that’s not true,” and added that NSA officials can only target Americans with probable cause.

Alexander said the agency itself has only 60 authorizations on specific persons, allowing officials to scan their phones, e-mails and other devices. However, recent reports show the NSA tracks over five billion phone users. Using up 27 terabytes of computer-server space, the agency is constantly pumping data, a Snowden report showed.

Bringing up a FISA court judge’s claim that even with the FISA courts, NSA officials have avoided using the court’s powers to receive confirmation requests, Miller asked for reasoning. Director Alexander’s blunt and obnoxious answer was that “There was nobody willfully or knowingly trying to break the law.” While Alexander concluded that nothing was willful or knowing, Miller decided not to challenge the response.

Giving in to the NSA director, Miller felt satisfied with the loose answer that held no proof of either happening. It’s as if Miller decided not to challenge Alexander because Alexander is the NSA director and therefore must know facts from conjecture. On the other hand, Miller was in the same intelligence gathering process as Alexander, and challenging the very practice with which you once partook in is certainly not protocol.

With Alexander packing on the interviews and Senate hearings, it seems the NSA wants to shape up more of the picture than they have in recent months.