NSA Chief: Protecting Americans From Terrorism ‘Like Holding a Hornet’s Nest’

General Keith Alexander, Director of the National Security Agency, testifies before the House Select Intelligence Committee June 18, 2013 in Washington, DC. The committee heard testimony on the topic of 'how the disclosed NSA programs protect Americans from terror attacks on US soil, and why the disclosure of that classified information aids our adversaries.'
National Journal
Dustin Volz
Dec. 11, 2013, 2:07 p.m.

Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency chief Keith Al­ex­an­der told Con­gress on Wed­nes­day that he knows no bet­ter way to en­sure the safety of Amer­ic­ans from ter­ror­ism than the agency’s con­tro­ver­sial do­mest­ic sur­veil­lance pro­grams, which he con­ceded have the po­ten­tial to be “ex­tremely in­trus­ive.”

“I agree that what Con­gress, the courts, and the ad­min­is­tra­tion have giv­en us here is ex­tremely in­trus­ive taken in its whole,” Al­ex­an­der told the Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee dur­ing its third hear­ing ex­amin­ing gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance pro­grams. “But the way we’ve put the over­sight and com­pli­ance and the re­gi­men we have around it “¦ en­sure that we’re do­ing this right.”

Al­ex­an­der ad­ded that “nobody has come up with a bet­ter way for us to con­nect the dots” for de­fend­ing the coun­try against ter­ror­ist plots. Try­ing to pro­tect Amer­ic­ans without trip­ping over some pri­vacy is­sues is “like hold­ing a hor­net’s nest,” he said. “We’re get­ting stung.”

Al­ex­an­der’s testi­mony comes dur­ing a week busy with new leaks re­veal­ing an even broad­er sur­veil­lance ef­fort than pre­vi­ously dis­closed by Ed­ward Snowden. Re­ports re­vealed the NSA and Brit­ish in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials in­filt­rate the vir­tu­al real­it­ies of on­line video games and use Google cook­ies to pin­point tar­gets for hack­ing.

Sen. Chuck Grass­ley, R-Iowa, at­temp­ted to get the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s wit­nesses to cla­ri­fy wheth­er re­form le­gis­la­tion pro­posed in Con­gress — par­tic­u­larly the Free­dom Act be­ing sponsored by Ju­di­ciary Chair­man Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. — would end the NSA’s bulk col­lec­tion of phone-re­cord metadata au­thor­ized un­der Sec­tion 215 of the Pat­ri­ot Act. But of­fi­cials largely de­murred, say­ing that the bill’s im­pact would mostly de­pend on how broadly it is in­ter­preted.

“If the USA Free­dom Act be­comes law, it’s go­ing to de­pend on how the court in­ter­prets any num­ber of the pro­vi­sions that are in it,” Deputy At­tor­ney Gen­er­al James Cole re­spon­ded. “I think it will have an im­pact on what is cur­rently done un­der 215, but 215 cov­ers more than just bulk data col­lec­tion.”

Grass­ley was un­sat­is­fied with Cole’s an­swer. “I would hope that we would have a firm state­ment from the ad­min­is­tra­tion of wheth­er this le­gis­la­tion is harm­ful or not.” He ad­ded that “the ad­min­is­tra­tion owes (a clear an­swer) to all of us, both pro­ponents and op­pon­ents” of sur­veil­lance re­form.

Leahy later began an ex­ten­ded con­ver­sa­tion with Al­ex­an­der that ques­tioned the mer­its of the NSA’s sur­veil­lance pro­grams, giv­en that it is dif­fi­cult to demon­strate their be­ne­fits. Leahy said he wor­ries about “giv­ing up too much pri­vacy” in the name of na­tion­al se­cur­ity. But Al­ex­an­der stood his ground in de­fense of the pro­grams.

“I don’t think any­one at the NSA is wed to a par­tic­u­lar pro­gram, but we do need to have a way to con­nect the dots,” he said. “And these pro­grams have been ef­fect­ive.”

Wed­nes­day’s hear­ing was ori­gin­ally sched­uled for last month but was delayed when Re­pub­lic­an com­mit­tee mem­bers boy­cot­ted a vote on a ju­di­cial nom­in­ee shortly be­fore the hear­ing was to be­gin.

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