NSA chief begs public to support massive spying apparatus

Katie McHugh Associate Editor
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Director of the National Security Agency Keith Alexander called on the public to support the agency’s surveillance sweeps on Wednesday, warning that the U.S. could suffer terrorist attacks similar to the Nairobi mall massacre if Congress curbs its powers.

“We need our nation to understand why we need these tools… If you take those [surveillance powers] away, think about the last week and what will happen in the future. If you think it’s bad now, wait until you get some of those things that happened in Nairobi,” he said at a cybersecurity summit held at the National Press Club, according to The Hill.

Americans could afford to have “esoteric” arguments about the scope of NSA spying thanks to the NSA’s efforts to stop terrorism, Alexander claimed. The agency had a role in handling the Boston Marathon bombings in April, he said.

Alexander did not detail how the agency failed to foil the Tsarnaev brothers’ plot before it unfolded, even though U.S. intelligence officials had been alerted to the threat posed by Tamarlan Tsarnaev by Russian intelligence.

“I can tell you, although I can’t go into detail, it provides the speed and agility in crises like the Boston marathon and the threats this summer,” Alexander said.

The NSA also only identified 12 analysts who violated the agency’s rules, Alexander said, and all 12 opted to retire after after the agency caught and punished them. Alexander also insisted that most of the violations were accidental and the NSA deleted all illegally collected data, after reporting the breaches to Congress, the Department of Justice and other agencies.

Alexander made his remarks after Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy outlined a plan on Tuesday to shut down the NSA’s domestic phone data collection, saying the government has not made a compelling case to preserve the program.

Court documents released in September revealed that the agency searched a database containing nearly all Americans’ phone numbers, violating court-ordered standards of privacy. From 2006 t0 2009, analysts compared 17,835 phone numbers to records — but only 1,935 met the reasonable suspicion standard, in which the number can be connected to a terrorist organization.  The enormous number of violations made it so the program “never functioned effectively,” according to Judge Reggie Walton of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Alexander claimed that the violations were accidental and occurred because the analysts did not understand how their own system worked.

“From a technical standpoint, there was no single person who had a complete technical understanding of the [record] system architecture,” he said, according to The Wall Street Journal. Judge Walton ordered an overhaul in 2009.

Alexander will testify in an open hearing at the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday.

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Katie McHugh