Collection of bulk phone records by U.S. intelligence agencies is essential to preventing terrorist attacks and “wrong decisions” by Congress could curb this power, the head of the National Security Agency said.
“We need our nation to understand why we need these tools, and what those tools mean to civil liberties and privacy and what they mean to defending this country,” NSA Director General Keith Alexander said during a keynote speech at a security conference in Washington today.
Bulk phone records were used to determine if there was a threat to New York City in the aftermath of the April 15 bombing of the Boston Marathon, as well as to determine if there were terrorist plots against U.S. embassies abroad during the summer, Alexander said in an interview after his speech.
“Somebody who has a database that can look at the foreign and the domestic numbers can look at those and get the information back quickly can tell you where there’s a threat and where there’s not,” Alexander said. He declined to discuss details about the cases.
The NSA is facing a backlash from some lawmakers and privacy advocates over abuses in spy programs exposed by former government contractor Edward Snowden and in documents recently declassified by President Barack Obama’s administration.
Democratic Senators Ron Wyden of Oregon, Mark Udall of Colorado and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, and Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky announced a bill today that would end bulk collection of phone records.
“It expresses our bipartisan view of what Congress must do to enact real, not cosmetic, intelligence reform,” Wyden told reporters during a press conference in Washington. “Dozens of misleading public statements made by top intelligence officials have now damaged the credibility of the leadership of the intelligence community at home and abroad.”
The legislation would permit the collection of phone records solely for people suspected of terrorism or espionage, Wyden said.
The bill also would allow Apple Inc. (AAPL), Google Inc. (GOOG), Facebook Inc. (FB) and other Internet companies to publicly disclose how they respond to law enforcement orders for data on their customers.
Paul said Director of National Intelligence James Clapper should resign because he gave an untruthful answer when testifying before the Senate intelligence committee in March.
“I think in order to get back credibility for our intelligence gathering he should resign,” Paul told reporters. “I don’t think you can come to a committee and lie to a committee and expect to have credibility.”
Wyden asked Clapper in March during a Senate intelligence committee hearing if the government collects data on millions of Americans. Clapper answered “no,” and then said, “Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly.” He told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell in an interview after NSA’s surveillance practices were disclosed that his answer was the “least untruthful.”
Alexander pleaded for support of NSA programs during his speech at the conference, which was attended primarily by government and industry officials specializing in cybersecurity.
“We can’t do that without your help,” he said. “That’s my ask of you.”
In particular, Alexander said the agency needs to collect bulk phone metadata, such as numbers dialed and call durations, to connect intelligence dots.
Alexander said it’s “flat wrong” that NSA analysts have been listening to all phone calls of Americans or reading citizens’ emails.
He said analysts who were found to have committed 12 intentional abuses within the past 10 years have been punished or left the agency.
“Congress is back in session. This is going to pick up,” Alexander said. “The American people have to weigh in and get the tools we need to protect this country and defend our civil liberties and privacy.”
Alexander also warned that a terrorist attack similar to the mall shooting in Nairobi, Kenya, last week could occur in the U.S. if NSA authorities are curbed.
Snowden fled the U.S. after releasing classified data to media outlets and is currently in Russia on temporary asylum.
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