Gen. Keith B. Alexander, the director of the National Security Agency (NSA), told The Chicago Council Friday that the leaked revelations of the agency’s “truly noble work” by Edward J. Snowden “has done significant and irrevocable damage to our country.”
Alexander presented a strong defense of the NSA’s successes against both terrorism and cyberattacks to 200 Council members at the Fairmont Hotel. Many of the media stories following the Snowden leaks have “‘inflated what we are actually doing. It’s critical for our nation that we get it right.”
But Alexander, who is retiring next month, stressed the need for “balance” between national security and civil liberties, including Americans’ right to privacy. He said he has “some ideas” that he plans to present soon to President Obama to ensure this balance.
Alexander has led the NSA for nine years. He also is commander of US Cyber Command and chief of the Central Security Services, and will also leave those jobs next month. Officials deny that his departure has anything to do with the Snowden leaks, but there has been speculation that it will give Obama a chance to revamp or redirect the beleaguered NSA.
Alexander himself described the NSA and its employees as beleaguered in the wake of Snowden’s disclosures and his flight to Russia.
“I’m concerned that the information that has been leaked will impact our ability” to protect America and its allies from terrorism, he said. “This is a truly noble thing that we do. The work that [NSA employees] do and the way they suffer in silence is exceptional. These are real people who care about this country and about our civil liberties.”
Alexander stressed that the “terrorist and cyber threats are real” and the NSA and other intelligence agencies need the tools to fight them. For instance:
- “There are 7,000 foreign fighters in Syria. When they go home, what will that mean for Europe and for our country? We have to make sure we are protected.”
- In the past two years, there have been devastating cyber attacks by so-called “wiper viruses”–viruses capable of wiping out computer data–on Saudi Aramco and on South Korea, plus some 140 less damaging attacks on American entities blamed on China, and attacks on power grids here.
“It’s growing,” he said. “It’s getting worse. We need cyber legislation.”
The best tool, combining security with liberty, is metadata, he said. This term, literally data about data, refers to what the NSA is doing now–collecting data on telephone numbers called and the length of calls. Under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, the NSA may gather this data but not the content of the calls or the names of callers. To get this information, it must go before a special Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC).
This method works, he said. “It’s no surprise that there has been no terrorist attack here in 10 years.” By contrast, he said, American intelligence before 9/11 lacked the ability to trace a call from Yemen to a phone in San Diego–information that might have prevented the attack.
Even under Section 215, the NSA’s ability to collect information on millions of Americans is limited, largely by practical concerns, Alexander said.
“Our job is to get them specifics,” he said, which means getting a FISC ruling dealing with specific calls. It does no good to send information on thousands or millions of calls to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, because the FBI has no way to investigate them all.
Alexander conceded that dealing with this much data inevitably causes “mistakes,” but “we tell everything we do wrong. We suffer for it–period. I’ve had to go to the President and say we made mistakes. We self-report every one of these.”
One controversy, very much in the news now, is the disclosure by Snowden that the NSA spied on allied leaders, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
“It’s incredibly difficult,” he said. “The reality is that we do have intelligence services for the good of the nation and so do they.
“Don’t believe that we are the only ones that collect in foreign countries,” he said. “There’s 140 NSAs out there. They’re doing something.”
The NSA and other intelligence agencies are working to make sure the Snowden leaks don‘t happen again, Alexander said. The vulnerabilities which Snowden revealed in the NSA are common to all intelligence agencies, such as the CIA, he said, and the NSA is sharing its information with them.
The NSA needs new tools, including the means to adapt to the rapid switch from analog to digital telephones, Alexander said. But he predicted there also would be new technologies to protect Americans’ communications–for instance, a means to imprint all data with a special key that only the individual caller can control.
Richard C. Longworth is a senior fellow at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Read more of his program summaries and recent publications or follow his blog.