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Outgoing NSA director: ‘It’s not our mission’ to spy on everyone in the world

Published Feb 17th, 2014 11:30AM EST
NSA telephone metadata recommendations

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The National Security Agency (NSA) will send its recommendations for where to store telephone metadata records to President Obama later this week, the outgoing NSA director said Friday in a speech defending his agency’s surveillance tactics. General Keith Alexander, who is retiring as NSA director next month, did not say where he thinks the data should be held. President Obama recommended on January 17th that the government stop holding Americans’ phone call records, but pushing the data out to either telephone companies or to a third party are both seen as having significant drawbacks.

“The good news is we have some ideas that we’re going to push off to the inter-agency that they’re working to get to the president next week,” Alexander said during a speech on Friday attended by BGR. “I can’t reveal that here because that’s still going through inter-agency review.”

President Obama directed the intelligence community to develop a proposal for having an external party hold the telephone metadata while still allowing NSA analysts to search it for possible terrorist connections. Obama set a deadline of March 28th, which is when the metadata program will need to be reauthorized by the surveillance court.

Alexander warned about the growing threat of cyber attacks and called for cybersecurity legislation. He noted that the financial sector was attacked over 340 times by distributed-denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks from fall of 2012 to spring of 2013. He also said that the systems that run America’s power grids are increasingly attacked with “occasional successful exfiltration of data.”

“We have to have government and industry work together [on cybersecurity legislation], so that if industry is being exploited or attacked by somebody, they can tell us,” Alexander said.

Alexander also sought to dispel what he considered to be myths about the metadata collection program.

“There’s a lot of joking going on about whether they’re listening to all our phone calls,” Alexander said “’Are you spying on everybody in the world?’ One, we don’t have that many people, and two, it’s not our mission.”

In addition, NSA analysts have searched for information on fewer than 300 phone numbers in the telephone database, only 22 NSA officials can approve looking at this database, and only 35 NSA analysts can actually look at the metadata, Alexander said.

He said “things get inflated” and “We need to get those facts out there.”

After the speech, former Energy Secretary Steven Chu agreed. “It’s been sensationalized about how the NSA is running rampant over the rights,” Chu said. “Sometimes the press sensationalizes a lot of things that there’s no truth to, like Solyndra,” referring to a now-bankrupt solar technology company the Department of Energy invested in.

Kathryn Callaghan, an organizer for Restore the Fourth Chicago, disagreed.

“I don’t understand how anyone could call news revealing a giant domestic intelligence-gathering operation aimed at everyone in the country sensationalized,” Callaghan said in an email.

Alexander’s speech came three days after The Day We Fight Back, an event organized to protest the NSA’s surveillance tactics. Last Tuesday, protestors sent 555,000 emails and made 89,000 calls to members of Congress. The event was held on the one-year anniversary of Internet-activist Aaron Swartz’s suicide and was supported by many Internet companies, including Google, Twitter, Tumblr, and Reddit.

Callaghan helped organize a The Day We Fight Back event in Chicago.

“The challenge is to get all the people who are angry about mass surveillance to petition their representatives in a coordinated way,” Callaghan said. “The Day We Fight Back was a good effort in this direction.”

Alexander believes Snowden’s leaks have significantly damaged America’s ability to fight terrorism.

“In my opinion it has done significant and irreversible damage to our country,” Alexander said. “It means that our ability to prevent future terrorist attacks is less than it was a year ago, at just the time when you need us to be better than we were a year ago.”

Since Snowden leaked the NSA documents, the NSA has put in place 41 different guidelines to prevent such a leak from happening again, according to Alexander.

Alexander is retiring next month after eight years as NSA director. Geoffrey Stone, a member of the NSA review panel, said over email that he is “sorry to see him retire” and that Alexander “has been a very good NSA director.”

President Obama has nominated Michael Rogers, the commander of the U.S. Navy’s Tenth Fleet, to succeed Alexander as NSA director.

About 200 people attended Alexander’s speech in Chicago on Friday, which was sponsored by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and by the University of Notre Dame International Security Program.