NSA Director Defends Spying
N.S.A. Director Firmly Defends Surveillance Efforts
By DAVID E. SANGER and THOM SHANKER
Published: October 12, 2013
FORT MEADE, Md. — The director of the National Security Agency, Gen.
Keith B. Alexander, said in an interview that to prevent terrorist attacks
he saw no effective alternative to the N.S.A.’s bulk collection of telephone
and other electronic metadata from Americans. But he acknowledged that his
agency now faced an entirely new reality, and the possibility of Congressional
restrictions, after revelations about its operations at home and abroad.
While offering a detailed defense of his agency’s work, General Alexander
said the broader lesson of the controversy over disclosures of secret N.S.A.
surveillance missions was that he and other top officials have to be more
open in explaining the agency’s role, especially as it expands its mission
into cyberoffense and cyberdefense.
“Given where we are and all the issues that are on the table, I do feel
it’s important to have a public, transparent discussion on cyber so
that the American people know what’s going on,” General Alexander
said. “And in order to have that, they need to understand the truth
about what’s going on.”
General Alexander, a career Army intelligence officer who also serves as
head of the military’s Cyber Command, has become the public face of
the secret — and, to many, unwarranted — government collection
of records about personal communications in the name of national security.
He has given a number of speeches in recent weeks to counter a highly negative
portrayal of the N.S.A.’s work, but the 90-minute interview was his
most extensive personal statement on the issue to date.
Speaking at the agency’s heavily guarded headquarters, General Alexander
acknowledged that his agency had stumbled in responding to the revelations
by Edward J. Snowden, the contractor who stole thousands of documents about
the N.S.A.’s most secret programs.
But General Alexander insisted that the chief problem was a public
misunderstanding about what information the agency collects — and what
it does not — not the programs themselves.
“The way we’ve explained it to the American people,” he said,
“has gotten them so riled up that nobody told them the facts of the
program and the controls that go around it.” But he was firm in saying
that the disclosures had allowed adversaries, whether foreign governments
or terrorist organizations, to learn how to avoid detection by American
intelligence and had caused “significant and irreversible damage”
to national security.
General Alexander said that he was extremely sensitive to the power of the
software tools and electronic weapons being developed by the United States
for surveillance and computer-network warfare, and that he set a very high
bar for when the nation should use them for offensive purposes.
“I see no reason to use offensive tools unless you’re defending
the country or in a state of war, or you want to achieve some really important
thing for the good of the nation and others,” he said.
Those comments were prompted by a document in the Snowden trove that said
the United States conducted more than 200 offensive cyberattacks in 2011
alone. But American officials say that in reality only a handful of attacks
have been carried out. They say the erroneous estimate reflected an inaccurate
grouping of other electronic missions.
But General Alexander would not discuss any specific cases in which the United
States had used those weapons, including the best-known example: its years-long
attack on Iran’s nuclear enrichment facility at Natanz. To critics of
President Obama’s administration, that decision made it easier for China,
Iran and other nations to justify their own use of cyberweapons.
General Alexander, who became the N.S.A. director in 2005, will retire early
next year. The timing of his departure was set in March when his tour was
extended for a third time, according to officials, who said it had nothing
to do with the surveillance controversy spawned by the leaks. The appointment
of his successor is likely to be a focal point of Congressional debate over
whether the huge infrastructure that was built during his tenure will remain
or begin to be restricted.
Senator Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who leads the Senate Judiciary
Committee, has already drafted legislation to eliminate the N.S.A.’s
ability to systematically obtain Americans’ calling records. And
Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican and co-author of
the Patriot Act, is drafting a bill that would cut back on domestic surveillance
General Alexander was by turns folksy and firm in the interview. But he was
unapologetic about the agency’s strict culture of secrecy and unabashed
in describing its importance to defending the nation.
He insisted that it would have been impossible to have made public, in advance
of the revelations by Mr. Snowden, the fact that the agency collected what
it calls the “business records” of all telephone calls, and many
other electronic communications, made in the United States. The agency is
under rules preventing it from investigating that so-called haystack of data
unless it has a “reasonable, articulable” justification, involving
communications with terrorists abroad, he added.
But he said the agency had not told its story well. As an example, he said,
the agency itself killed a program in 2011 that collected the metadata of
about 1 percent of all of the e-mails sent in the United States. “We
terminated it,” he said. “It was not operationally relevant to
what we needed.”
However, until it was killed, the N.S.A. had repeatedly defended that program
as vital in reports to Congress.
Senior officials also said that one document in the Snowden revelations,
an agreement with Israel, had been misinterpreted by those who believed that
it meant the N.S.A. was sharing raw intelligence data on Americans, including
the metadata on phone calls. Officials said the probability of American content
in the shared data was extremely small.
General Alexander said that confronting what he called the two biggest threats
facing the United States — terrorism and cyberattacks — would require
the application of expanded computer monitoring. In both cases, he said,
he was open to much of that work being done by private industry, which he
said could be more efficient than government.
In fact, he said, a direct government role in filtering Internet traffic
into the United States, in an effort to stop destructive attacks on Wall
Street, American banks and the theft of intellectual property, would be
inefficient and ineffective.
“I think it leads people to the wrong conclusion, that we’re reading
their e-mails and trying to listen to their phone calls,” he said.
Although he acknowledged that the N.S.A. must change its dialogue with the
public, General Alexander was adamant that the agency adhered to the law.
“We followed the law, we follow our policies, we self-report, we identify
problems, we fix them,” he said. “And I think we do a great job,
and we do, I think, more to protect people’s civil liberties and privacy
than they’ll ever know.”
A version of this article appears in print on October 13, 2013, on page A15
of the New York edition with the headline: N.S.A. Director Firmly Defends