Alex Stamos, an independent security researcher, recalls spending a casual two hours hanging out with National Security Agency employees at the pool during the 2012 Black Hat computer-security conference.
U.S. officials had similarly relaxed -- and often brief -- public appearances on Capitol Hill, where top-secret programs were the domain of sessions closed to the public.
“This year, if I got the same request I would say, ‘Send me questions in writing or you can meet with me and my lawyers,’” Stamos, a member of the Black Hat advisory board, said yesterday in an interview at the annual Las Vegas conference, billed as the world’s largest gathering of security experts.
Intelligence leaders yesterday encountered pushback from key constituencies as they tried to mend fences in the wake of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s disclosures about the scope of classified programs that collect bulk data on phone and Internet use.
NSA Director Keith Alexander was heckled during a speech at the Black Hat conference yesterday in which he appealed to hackers to examine “the facts” about the spy programs and to keep working with his agency on cybersecurity defenses.
Senior intelligence officials were subjected to pointed, skeptical question by lawmakers in Washington yesterday after the director of national intelligence declassified parts of documents describing how and why the NSA collects records of millions of Americans’ phone calls.
The documents included a surveillance-court ruling underlying a requirement that a unit of Verizon Communications Inc. provide all of its customers’ phone-calling logs to the NSA under an order renewed every three months.
They also included congressional briefings from 2009 and 2011 outlining the scope of that program and one that until 2011 allowed collection of bulk electronic communications including e-mails.
Snowden revealed that the U.S. government was secretly collecting the telephone calling information through the secret Verizon court order, and operating a program known as Prism that collects Internet data from Apple Inc., Google Inc., and other companies to monitor online activity of foreigners believed to be plotting terrorist attacks.
The lobbying effort will include a push from President Barack Obama. He is scheduled to meet with a bipartisan group of lawmakers today to discuss the programs utilized under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the White House said.
Yesterday’s audiences made clear they want changes, and more transparency.
“If this program is not effective, it has to end,” Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said today during a hearing on NSA programs. “So far I’m not convinced by what I’ve seen.”
Alexander’s speech in Las Vegas, his first public remarks to security researchers since Snowden’s disclosures, was interrupted several times.
When Alexander said employees at the NSA “stand for freedom,” one audience member shouted a profanity and another screamed the NSA can’t be trusted. Another attendee later told Alexander to “read the Constitution.”
Alexander responded directly to some of the shouts.
“You need to understand what we’re trying to do to defend the country and protect civil liberties and privacy,” he said. “Those are facts.”
The efforts of these researchers, who explore vulnerabilities in computer networks and let companies know they exist, are crucial to U.S. intelligence agencies that count on them to find holes before malicious hackers do.
“You’re the greatest gathering of technical talent anywhere in the world,” Alexander said. “The whole reason I came here was to ask you to help us make it better. If you disagree with what we’re doing, then you should help twice as much.”
Concerns that government surveillance programs are violating the privacy rights of Americans have been building for years within the hacking community, Jeff Moss, founder of the Black Hat conference, said in opening remarks to attendees.
The spy programs exposed by Snowden have raised those concerns to new heights, he said.
“I’ve never sensed this level of tension or apprehension in the community,” Moss said. “We’re finally having the conversation that we’ve all been wanting to have for five or 10 years.”
U.S. officials yesterday opened the door to changes, even as they say the programs strike the proper balance between security and privacy.
“We are open to re-evaluating this program in ways that can perhaps provide greater confidence and public trust that this is in fact a program that achieves both privacy protections and national security,” Robert Litt, the national intelligence director’s general counsel, told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
National Intelligence Director James Clapper yesterday declassified and disclosed three documents intended to shine more light on the use of bulk data collection of phone records.
Each of the documents -- a primary court order providing for the collection of phone records and two congressional briefings -- cite the program, known as Section 215, as integral to protecting the U.S. from terror plots in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
While the court document, from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, doesn’t lay out the legal rationale for the programs, it does designate the mechanisms for analysts to access the collected metadata, as well as the restrictions in place for its use.
Authorized personnel can access the database of domestic phone records only when there is a “reasonable, articulable suspicion” that the number is related to terrorism, according to the April 25 order signed by U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson.
The five-page congressional briefings, provided to lawmakers on the Intelligence and Judiciary committees in 2009 and 2011, outline the scope of the program, as well as one that also allowed collection of bulk electronic communications. U.S. officials have said that aspect of the program ended in 2011.
The briefing materials, which were limited to lawmakers and cleared congressional staff, underscored in blunt terms their importance -- and classified nature -- to those who had access to them prior to their declassification.
“The information contained in this report describes some of the most sensitive foreign intelligence collection programs conducted by the United States government,” the heading of the 2011 briefing said in all capital letters. “Publicly disclosing any of this information would be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to our nation’s intelligence capabilities and to national security.”
The government’s disclosures came the same day the Guardian newspaper, one of the two publications that has received the bulk of Snowden’s information, published a story about another NSA program called XKeyscore.
That program, according to the Guardian, allowed analysts to conduct detailed searches of databases containing e-mails, online chats and individuals’ browsing histories.
U.S. Representatives Mike Rogers of Michigan and Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, the top Republican and Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, called the report “a completely inaccurate picture of the program.”
“The program referenced in the story is not used for indiscriminate monitoring of the Internet, as many falsely believe,” the lawmakers said in a joint statement. “Rather, the program is simply a tool used by our intelligence analysts to better understand foreign intelligence, including terrorist targets overseas.”
While lawmakers yesterday said they appreciated the latest declassification effort by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, or ODNI, they also criticized its timing and the forced nature of the debate over the programs.
“ODNI has known for weeks that this hearing was coming and yet ODNI releases this material just a few minutes before the hearing began,” Senator Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat, said. “You know, again, it’s a step forward, but you get the feeling when it’s ad hoc transparency, that doesn’t engender trust, I don’t think.”
Franken is among lawmakers from both parties and chambers drafting legislation to curb the collection of phone records.
A House proposal to defund the NSA programs came seven votes short of passing July 24.
Litt said the administration “is more or less in the same place” as a proposal being crafted by Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and chairman of the Intelligence Committee.
Feinstein said she would attempt to include a series of changes designed to provide more information to the public in the annual intelligence reauthorization bill. Part of that bill would allow for the disclosure of the number of times per year any company is required to provide data to the government.
That would come as companies including Facebook Inc., Microsoft Corp., Yahoo! Inc. and Google Inc. are pressuring the Justice Department to allow them to give details about the scale of their participation in the programs.
The secret surveillance court has ordered the department to conduct a broad review to identify orders and exhibits that can be declassified for release. The Justice Department is in the midst of that review now.