National Security Agency Director, General Keith Alexander, was interviewed by Bloomberg Television‘s Trish Regan at the “Cybersecurity: Costs and Solutions” conference held in Washington, D.C., by Bloomberg Government. By Alexander’s own admission, the NSA doesn’t “do a good job explaining” the job it does because it does not “get out in front of the press.” Rather than make a mistake, which may increase the likelihood of a successful attack, the NSA chooses not to go public.
Yet there he was, out in front of the press, talking about the NSA and what it does. Here are some highlights from the October 30 interview, including explanations and justifications for NSA programs. ”This is what the nation needs us to do. You guys defend the country and protect our civil liberties and privacy. We’ll take the heat. Now we didn’t realize it would get that hot.”
Alexander explained that the NSA has “great insights to terrorists.” When a phone number calls into the United States, the NSA can help sort out if it is a terrorist calling, and then pass that along to the FBI. “We don’t want to collect and we don’t collect the content of US person’s emails or phones, but that’s hyped out in the press and everybody says they must do this with everything. Think about it. We don’t have enough people to do that. Why would we do it? There’s no intelligence value.”
Something else the NSA sees as information they would be unable to use? Swaths of data about European citizens. “The perception that NSA is collecting 70 million phone calls on France or Spain or Italy is factually incorrect.”
When asked more broadly about eavesdropping on foreign countries and leaders, and the possibility President Obama will ask the NSA to suspend spying on allied leaders, Alexander said that every country is spying on every other country. “Countries act in their best interest. Countries and their intelligence services receive requirements to go after what’s in their nation’s interest. So from our perspective, I think the question that’s really on the table is which is the greater national interest. And that’s a policy decision and one that I think our policymakers are looking at.”
But it isn’t only other countries who are listening in on us. The terrorists are listening, too. “What this means is that the probability of successful terrorist attack has increased.” The ability to fight against this has been hurt, not only because terrorists are watching what the U.S. does, but also because of leaks, such as the documents released by Edward Snowden, to the Guardian newspaper.
Because of those leaks, or similar instances, Alexander stated, “terrorist groups are changing the way they operate. It makes our finding them and tracking them more difficult. And the people who will pay are innocent people here in our country and overseas. That’s wrong. It needs to stop.”
Alexander said that not only had Snowden endangered U.S. national security, Snowden was wrong about infiltrating servers at Google and Yahoo. ”We do not have access to Google servers, Yahoo servers. We go through a court order. NSA does collect information on terrorists and on our national intelligence priorities, but we are not authorized to go into a US company’s servers and take data. We’d have to go through a court process for doing that.”
A report by the Washington Post on Wednesday, October 30, reaffirmed previous allegations of NSA hacking into the companies databases. Alexander continued, saying that the NSA uses legal channels and court orders to obtain information companies. These same companies have data taken from servers by other nations all the time, using the same process that is in place in the U.S.
The NSA programs — finding out what is going on overseas, collecting metadata — was implemented in the post-9/11 backlash. Alexander said, ”the intelligence community was beat up for failing to connect the dots.” The FBI already has the domestic piece of the puzzle, but metadata is needed to “connect the dots” between what is known to be happening overseas and the intelligence held by the FBI. ”There is no information on US persons (inaudible) date time group and a duration of the call. Your name’s not in them. My name’s not in them.”
His answers reveal an agency attempting to do its job, but unable to explain to citizens what it does. At the beginning of the interview, Alexander discussed cybersecurity threats facing the financial industry. “My personal thoughts are the financial industry actually does a real good job of protecting their networks given what they — what they can do. I think the issue that we really see is there are things that the government knows that is classified. How do we share that with industry so that they are protected?”
Interestingly, this is what the NSA needs to find a way to do as well, it needs to find a way to communicate and share enough information to the American people so that they know how they are being protected without compromising security practices already in place. It does no good for Alexander to state that, “[T]raction is selling newspapers on false stuff rather than putting the facts out,” if the American public has no truths to deny “false stuff” with.
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