The head of the National Security Agency said he would seek to make more information public about electronic surveillance of citizens while emphasizing that disclosure of the programs has done “great harm” to the U.S.
Information that could be made public includes secret court orders authorizing the collection of phone records and Internet communications, General Keith Alexander said yesterday.
Alexander, appearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee, made his first public comments since the classified surveillance programs were exposed by Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old NSA technology contractor working for Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp.
“The perspective is that we’re trying to hide something because we did something wrong. We’re not,” Alexander said. “We want to tell you what we’re doing, and tell you that it’s right and let the American people see this.”
Snowden’s disclosures have sparked a criminal investigation by the Justice Department, calls for the surveillance to be reined in, and a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union accusing the government of violating the privacy of its citizens.
“Many Americans are becoming more concerned about what their own government is doing with domestic surveillance,” said Senator Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat. “It’s very, very difficult, I think, to have a transparent debate about secret programs approved by a secret court, issuing secret court orders, based on secret interpretations of the law.”
President Barack Obama’s administration has confirmed the existence of a program compelling Verizon Communications Inc. to provide the NSA with data on all its customers’ telephone use. The administration also has confirmed the existence of a separate program called Prism to monitor the Internet activity of foreigners believed to be located outside the U.S. and plotting terrorist attacks.
Alexander told lawmakers that the programs operate under oversight of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and Congress and have helped thwart “dozens of terrorist events.”
Snowden, who fled to Hong Kong and told a newspaper there that he will fight U.S. extradition, passed the intelligence data to reporters.
The revelation of the surveillance programs has already done “great harm,” and “our security is jeopardized,” Alexander said.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that we will lose capabilities as a result of this, and that not only the United States, but those allies that we have helped will no longer be as safe as they were two weeks ago,” he said.
The monitoring under Prism can involve the communications of a U.S. citizen without a warrant. A warrant is required to examine U.S citizens’ data in detail. A court warrant is also needed to examine details of phone records, and those records are deleted after five years, said Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat.
Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, asked Alexander to spell out how the NSA had used the programs, which some lawmakers are now trying to curtail.
Alexander said the tip that helped thwart the plot hatched by Najibullah Zazi to bomb New York subways in 2009 came from “information based on operatives overseas.”
Acting on that tip, the Federal Bureau of Investigation located Zazi and used phone records the NSA collects “to go and find out connections from Zazi to other players throughout -- throughout communities, specifically in New York City.”
Although Alexander said he favors transparency and telling Americans some of the ways in which the NSA collects data, he cautioned against giving away too much. “I would rather take a public beating and people think I’m hiding something than to jeopardize the security of this country,” he said.
“Because if we tell the terrorists every way that we’re gonna track ’em, they will get through and Americans will die -- that’s wrong,” Alexander said.
Senator Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, asked Alexander if he was troubled that Snowden “had access to this highly-classified information at such a young age, with a limited educational and work experience.”
Alexander said he has “grave concerns” about Snowden’s access to top-secret material.
“This individual was a system administrator with access to key parts of the network,” Alexander said. “We’ve got to address that. That is of serious concern to us and something that we have to fix.”
With Justice Department officials working on possible criminal charges, Snowden, in an interview published yesterday in the South China Morning Post, said he would fight extradition from Hong Kong, where he fled before revealing he was the source of the reports in the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper and the Washington Post.
Snowden said in the interview that he hasn’t committed any crime and planned to fight the U.S. government in the Hong Kong courts.
“I’m neither traitor nor hero,” Snowden said. “I’m an American.”