NSA Trying to Change the Surveillance Narrative

Gen. Keith Alexander and the National Security Agency continue to struggle to win back the public and political support they’ve lost while keeping their tenuous grasp on the collection tools they’ve been employing for more than a decade.

When things go badly in Washington, D.C., when a scandal breaks or damaging leaks begin to surface, there is an established and well-worn playbook that politicians and executives can turn to for solace. There’s a page for every conceivable situation, and it’s that playbook that the National Security Agency and its director, Gen. Keith Alexander, are relying on now as they struggle to win back a bit of the public and political support they’ve lost and keep their tenuous grasp on the collection tools they’ve been employing for more than a decade.

Alexander, who is not just the director of NSA and commander of U.S. Cyber Command but the public face of the agency and its recent troubles, has been making the rounds in the last few days, speaking at security conferences and appearing before Congressional committees. And the message he is delivering is the same in each case: the NSA does not spy on Americans and is, in fact, one of the main reasons that there haven’t been any major terror attacks since 9/11. The agency, he said, looked at the intelligence community’s failures in the months leading up to 9/11 and knew that it needed better tools and more visibility into electronic communications in order to “connect the dots”.

Hence, Section 702 of the USA PATRIOT Act and Section 215 metadata collection. Those tools, Alexander said, are vital to preventing future terror attacks.

“What we were blamed for as an intelligence community is not connecting the dots. So we came up with a couple of programs. FISA is the key to connecting the dots,” Alexander said in a speech at the Billington Cybersecurity Summit on Wednesday.

He repeated much the same sentiments Thursday in a hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee, defending the use of FISA Section 215 data collection and repeating, as he has many times since the Edward Snowden leaks began, that the program has helped prevent several terror attacks.

By shifting the focus away from the NSA’s potential abuses of the surveillance programs the question of whether the bulk collection of phone and Internet data is even necessary, Alexander is employing the time-honored strategy of answering the question he wanted to be asked rather than the one that was posed. He is changing the narrative.

No one disputes that the NSA, CIA, FBI and other agencies are working hard to defend the country and disrupt terrorism. That’s their job, and they’re good at it. Those agencies need tools to do the job, but the thing about tools is that each one is designed for a specific purpose. Start using one for a different job, and it’s not as effective, or worse, someone gets hurt. The old saying is that when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. That bit of wisdom isn’t limited to hand tools.

The tools that Congress has given the NSA–metadata collection and large-scale Internet traffic collection among them–are meant to do one thing and that’s identify potential terrorist and criminal plots. Alexander and others have said that these programs have been highly effective at doing that. And perhaps they have; the public will never know that. Much like security, intelligence work has the built-in disadvantage of people only finding out about your failures and not your successes. But that’s not really the point, is it? Hammers are great for driving nails, but they can be used to break windows, too.

Some members of Congress have heard the reasoning from Alexander and others for years and have resisted their efforts to change the narrative.

“You built an intelligence collection system that deceived the American people repeatedly. Time after time, the American people were told one thing about domestic surveillance in public forums while government agencies did something else,” Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon said during the Intelligence Committee hearing yesterday. “That’s a loss of trust that cannot be rebuilt.”

For most of its history, the NSA hasn’t had to worry about what the public thinks. It has answered only to Congress and the president. That’s all changed now, something that Alexander knows quite well. So he has turned his sights on the media and the lawmakers who are asking pointed questions in an effort to move the spotlight away from his agency. But the spotlight is widening with each new revelation and the room for maneuvering is shrinking with each passing day.


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  • TheTruth on

    No terrorism threat has yet been discovered through the data collected, not has it yet proven useful. Each successful incident by our security/law enforcement organizations has been due to old fashioned police work. They haven't yet pointed to a single case where "connecting the dots" provided anything of value.
  • Deramin on

    It's nice to see the NSA isn't fooling everyone with these tactics. From day 1 they've been trying to have a completely different dialog about what they've done than the rest of us are trying to have. I'm reminded of Gandalf in Lord of the Rings saying he shouldn't be given the One Ring because he would try to use it for good and through him it would do terrible evil. We know the NSA's intentions are good, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be afraid of the consequences of using tools like that on our society. Some of the worst atrocities in history have come from misguided people trying to do good. Good on Wyden for speaking up against them. Oregon is extraordinarily blessed by several representatives that appear to attempt long term thinking and care about the good of their people.
  • Emily on

    Even if surveillance prevented incidents (or moved in afterward and took culprits off the streets), that does not excuse or justify the egregious spying we know NSA has been doing, let alone what we don't know ... because we know there's poop we don't know about this agency. If the police could catch more murderers by looking in everyone's windows and traipsing through their kitchens at will, they still would not be allowed outside windows or in kitchens uninvited. There's that 'secure in our homes' concept to discourage that kind of peeping tomism from police, who are supposed to actually respect citizens as their bosses.
  • Tinman on

    I remember for decades the U.S. government chastized China, Russia and other communist countries for spying on their citizens. Just look at us now! The NSA is doing nothing but trying to cover their collective butts. It seems that every time the NSA speaks, it's nothing but lies, lies and more lies. And even IF they weren't looking at the data without a warrant, they're still collecting the data on honest law abiding citizens. This is just like recording every phone conversation on every citizen "just in case". Warrant or no warrant, it's still spying.
  • Jeffrey Lebowski on

    Are you listening, Senator Feinstein? We are not fools and we will not be fooled. Not by you or by General Star Trek.
  • Muddy Road on

    Alexander in an inveterate liar. Congress and his boss, the President, let him get away with it. He seems almost sociopathic about it...like he has no conscience about it at all. Mr. President we've got some problems here, and the General is one of them. It's time to fire Alexander and Clapper and re-organize the entire intelligence system of the USA to bring it with compliance of all federal and international law, not to mention the Bill of Rights. But first thing, let's fire Alexander!

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