Senate Committee Confronts NSA Director on Surveillance

The Senate Appropriations Committee grilled NSA Director Gen. Keith B. Alexander over the agency’s surveillance of Americans’ phone call data.

National Security Agency director Gen. Keith Alexander was asked some pointed questions by the Senate Appropriations Committee this afternoon regarding the spy agency’s surveillance of Americans’ phone calls and electronic communication in the name of fighting terrorism.

Alexander provided little in the way of direct answers to the most pressing questions of what grounds the NSA has for collecting cellular call data on all Americans, exactly how it’s used and when, deferring instead to a closed-door classified meeting scheduled for tomorrow before the Senate.

“I do think what we’re doing does protect Americans’ civil liberties and privacy,” Alexander said. “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.”

Alexander reaffirmed the agency’s actions were carried out under provisions in the Patriot Act (Section 215) and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) section 702, and said that dozens off terrorist events in the U.S. and abroad have been disrupted because of the data collected. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., pressed Alexander on an exact number of events collected through Section 215 specifically. Alexander said millions of records are collected, but “dozens were critical,” the general said, adding that he would provide an accurate number within a week with the cooperation of the FBI and intelligence community.

“I want the American people to know we’re trying to be transparent, protect civil liberties and security,” said Alexander, who is scheduled to deliver the keynote address at the 2013 Black Hat Briefings next month in Las Vegas.

Where Alexander was non-committal was when asked by Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Nebraska and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, about the methodology of data collection, why it was so broad and whether it extended beyond phone calls to online searches, for example. Alexander said the contents of phone calls are not searched unless there is a suspicion of terrorism and not without a court order, and if a person of interest is identified by the NSA and FBI, a court order may be obtained to look deeper into collected data.

“The answer is we don’t get to look at data and swim through the data,” Alexander said. “I don’t want to shirk that, but that will be part of the closed hearing. You will get that answered tomorrow by justice. ”

Still the senators were persistent on the scope of data collection. Alexander said that under FISA, all that is collected are business records, or metadata about phone calls and other information that would appear on a phone bill. Alexander said the call detail records, to-from records as he put it, are stored in a secure environment and is not searched until there is a suspicion of terrorism.

“If I see that, I have to prove it, then I can see who they are talking to and why,” Alexander said. “All I am looking for is who they are talking to. If I didn’t’ collect it, how would I know who they are talking to?”

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, quizzed Alexander about whistleblower Edward Snowden, currently in Hong Kong. Snowden, a former CIA contractor in Hawaii formerly employed by Booz Allen, was the source of the explosive expose by the Guardian newspaper in the U.K. Snowden today told a Hong Kong newspaper, according to CBS News, that he was not hiding in Hong Kong. “I am here to reveal criminality,” he said.

“I have had many opportunities to flee Hong Kong, but I would rather stay and fight the United States government in the courts, because I have faith in Hong Kong’s rule of law,” Snowden said.

Sen. Durbin, meanwhile, ticked off Snowden’s resume, listing that he was a high school and community college dropout with a GED who worked as a security guard for the NSA before working in IT as a contractor for the intelligence agency before going undercover and given clearance and access to the classified documents. Snowden reportedly made between $122,000 and $200,000 in salary and had access to critical data with relatively little experience, something Durbin questioned.

“I have great concerns over the process and access he had,” Alexander said. “We have to look into it and fix it across the intelligence community. We have to look at the processes and oversight of those processes, determine where it went wrong and how we’re going to fix it.”

Sen. Susan Collins, D-Maine, asked Alexander about Snowden’s claim that he at any time could hack his way into the content data of phone calls or email collected by the surveillance operation.

“That’s false,” Alexander said. “I know of no way to tap into phone calls or emails.”

Image from Flickr photostream of Georgia Tech

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