NSA chief defends monitoring programs, considers changes in Aspen

NSA Director Keith Alexander addresses the media at the Aspen Security Forum on July 18, 2013. (Photo: CNN)

NSA Director Keith Alexander addresses the media at the Aspen Security Forum on July 18, 2013. (Photo: CNN)

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ASPEN, Colo. — The director of the National Security Agency on Thursday offered a full-throated defense of a domestic monitoring program that has been at the center of government leaks, while also tacitly supporting an idea to dramatically change the controversial snooping.

In a public interview at the Aspen Security Forum, NSA Director Keith Alexander addressed the leaks carried out by Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked classified documents to the media.

At the heart of the Snowden leaks is a program that collects information about all calls in the United States. The information collected, called metadata, includes duration, time of the call and the numbers that are party to the call, all of which are stored in a government database.

But what if private phone companies – instead of the government – ran the database?

“You could technically do that,” Alexander said. “Now, it creates some operational problems that we would have to work our way through … But that may be the best solution.”

The program, as hypothetically proposed by NBC’s Pete Williams – the moderator of the session – would have the phone companies keeping the information, not the NSA.

One problem, Alexander said, is that you would “have to change the legislation to require them to keep it and then have them keep it.”

Despite the possible problem, Alexander said, “I think it is something we should consider. I am not against it.”

As for Snowden, who is now a man without a country in Moscow’s international airport after the United States revoked his passport, Alexander said the government now knows how much top secret information the former contractor pulled from NSA computers and, in response, the agency is “taking actions to fix” security issues.

In particular, Alexander said, the government is limiting the number of employees who can transfer files to removable drives and changing security protocols at NSA offices.

Those leaks, Alexander said, have made the intelligence communities’ job “harder.”  In particular, the NSA chief said the U.S. has “concrete proof” that terrorists are making changes due to the disclosures.

Alexander defended the government surveillance programs, which also includes a program to collect data about overseas Internet communications, as necessary to prevent major terrorist attacks.

“The purpose of these programs and the reason we use secrecy is not to hide it from the American people, not to hide it from you,” Alexander told the audience. Instead, he said the programs are kept secret because of “those who walk among you who are trying to kill you.”

Defending the telephone metadata program as one that has “more oversight” than any other program that he knew of, Alexander said the monitoring program was in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks and the countries demand to not let that happen again.

“We came together as a country and said never again,” he said. “We don’t want another 9/11.”

Details about the monitoring programs at the NSA were first leaked to the Guardian newspaper and to the Washington Post. Since then, the German magazine Der Spiegel was also shown information obtained by Snowden.

The leaks have become an international problem for the Obama administration, which has seen leaders around the world – including allies in Europe – speak out publically about programs that have even monitored their offices.

Much of the public outcry has focused on the idea that the government could possibly be listening to individual calls without a warrant. Alexander admitted that the NSA and administration could be doing a better job of informing “the American people on what these programs do.”

As for monitoring the content of individual phone calls, Alexander said, “You couldn’t sit at my desk at NSA and do that. You couldn’t possibly do that.”

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