Speaking before the House Intelligence Committee on Tuesday, senior intelligence and law enforcement officials said that the FISA-authorized collection of telephone records and other data revealed by Edward Snowden’s leaks has prevented more than 50 terror attacks against the United States since 9/11.
Gen. Keith Alexander, the director of the NSA, said that the documents that Snowden, a former NSA contractor, leaked to the media paint an incomplete picture of the U.S. intelligence community’s capabilities and efforts and that the NSA PRISM program and other collection programs may have been seriously damaged by the leaks.
“This debate has been fueled by incomplete and inaccurate information without context,” Alexander told the House Select Committee on Intelligence. “These programs were approved by the administration, Congress and the courts. From my perspective, it’s a sound legal process. Ironically, the documents released so far show the rigorous oversight our government uses. I would much rather be here today debating this point than trying to explain how we failed to prevent another 9/11.”
Alexander and the other witnesses, who included Deputy Attorney General James Cole, FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce, General Counsel Robert Litt of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and Deputy Director of the NSA Chris John Inglis, spent most of the three-hour hearing justifying the surveillance programs authorized under section 215 of the Patriot Act and section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and explaining how much oversight and restriction is involved in the data collection. The two programs revealed by Snowden’s leaks–the collection of phone metadata from telcos and the collection of user information from Internet companies such as Microsoft and Google under court order–are among the most tightly controlled and rigorously monitored in the history of the country’s intelligence efforts, Cole said.
“This is not a program that’s off the books, that’s hidden. It is overseen by three branches of our government,” Cole said. “What we’ve seen published concerning Section 215, you’ve seen one order that’s a couple of pages long. It’s the smallest of the two orders. The other goes into great detail on what we can do with that data and the conditions that are placed on us. [The telephone metadata] is just like what you’d get on your phone bill.”
This is the second time in the last week that Alexander has testified before Congress about the NSA’s surveillance methods. On June 12 he appeared in front of the Senate Appropriations Committee and answered some of the same questions, defending the agency’s authority to conduct these kinds of programs.
“I do think what we’re doing does protect Americans’ civil liberties and privacy,” Alexander said at that hearing. “To date, we have not been able to explain it because it’s been classified. How can we explain it and still keep the nation secure? That’s the issue in front of us.”
On Tuesday, Alexander said that the press reports about the PRISM program are largely inaccurate, that the NSA has no ability to directly pull data from companies such as Google, Apple or Microsoft and that the agency relies on court orders and warrants, as dictated by law.
“U.S. companies are compelled to provide these records by U.S. law,” he said. “In practice, U.S. companies have put energy and focus into protecting their customers around the world while meeting these obligations.”
Alexander also reiterated the assertion he and others in the intelligence community have made that the NSA has no authority to target a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, no matter where he lives, without prior legal approval.
“The NSA can’t target email or phone calls of any U.S. person anywhere in the world without individualized court orders,” Alexander said.
Even with all of the restrictions, Alexander said, the intelligence community is considering ways that it can change its collection methods in order to further protect the rights of Americans. One of those changes could see the phone metadata staying at the telecom providers, rather than being collected by the NSA through FISA court orders. The agency would then query the company in each specific instance that it needs data on a target phone number.
“We want to do it right. The concern is speed in crisis,” he said.
The officials also told the committee members that Snowden’s leaks likely have caused irreparable damage to the ability of the intelligence community to do its job.
“These are extremely important collection programs that protect us not only from terrorists but other threats,” Litt said. “We run the risk of losing these collection capabilities. We’re not going to know for many months. If we do, there’s no doubt it will cause our national security to be affected.”
Joyce, the FBI deputy director, agreed.
“These are egregious leaks,” he said. “Egregious.”
Image from Flickr photos of Tim Green.