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Former NSA director: Having surveillance tools revealed puts U.S. in greater harm

May 13, 2014 at 6:11 PM EDT
Revelations about the surveillance programs operated by the NSA have made Americans wonder how much of their lives is being monitored by the government. Judy Woodruff sits down with retired Gen. Keith Alexander, former director of the National Security Agency, to discuss the impact of the Snowden leaks, what President Obama knew about spying programs and how to balance privacy with security.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to a close look at the U.S. government’s surveillance programs.

It’s the subject of tonight’s “Frontline” on PBS, the first of a two-part series titled “The United States of Secrets.” Their reporting focuses on inside accounts of the controversial spying operations put in place after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Here, you will see former National Security Agency employees affiliated with a program called ThinThread, a tool which could capture and sort massive amounts of phone and e-mail data, but had an encryption function to protect the privacy of individual Americans. They and others describe the moment they found out that the technology was being used without the privacy protection.

NARRATOR: It didn’t take long for clues to emerge that something much bigger was going on.

WILLIAM BINNEY, Former National Security Agency Technical Director: They started seeing stacks of servers piled in corners and so forth.

So we had to walk way around all this hardware that was piling up out there. And so we knew, you know, something was happening.

JAMES BAMFORD, Author, “The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA From 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America”: All of a sudden, people who normally would communicate with each other were keeping secret this new operation of some sort.

NARRATOR: Dozens of NSA employees were sworn to secrecy, but before long, details were leaked to Drake.

THOMAS DRAKE, Former National Security Agency Senior Executive: I had people coming to me with grave concerns of, what are we doing, Tom? I thought we’re supposed to have a warrant. I’m being directed to deploy what’s normally foreign intelligence, outward-facing equipment, I’m being now directed to place it on internal networks.

NARRATOR: At the same time, Bill Binney and the ThinThread team heard that the program was using ThinThread, but stripping out the privacy protections.

JANE MAYER, “The New Yorker”: What they’re hearing is that the program they designed is in some form being put into use, but without the protections that they had designed in.

WILLIAM BINNEY: What they did was they got rid of the section of the code that encrypted any of the attributes of U.S. citizens.

NARRATOR: Even Ed Loomis, who had wanted a more robust approach, was surprised at how far the agency was willing to go.

ED LOOMIS, National Security Agency Cryptologist: I just refused to believe, after all I had been through for 37 years, that all of a sudden things would change and they’d go back to the old ways, back to the early ’70s.

I didn’t believe that they could possibly have just flip-flopped and gone 180 degrees the other way. I just didn’t believe it.

NARRATOR: To the ThinThread team, collecting data without a warrant seemed like a direct violation of the rules they had followed for years.

J. KIRK WIEBE, National Security Agency Senior Analyst: All these years, having grown up you never spy on Americans, we had suddenly become criminals by association. The agency had gone down a path that we had been preached to you never do. We were very, very, very concerned.

NARRATOR: And the fact that their ThinThread system had been incorporated into the program was the last straw.

WILLIAM BINNEY: We said, we can’t stick around and be a party to this. This — we can’t be an accessory to all these crimes, so we have to get out.

NARRATOR: At the end of October 2001, Bill Binney, Kirk Wiebe and Ed Loomis all quietly retired.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The film goes on to explain the government’s rationale for its new controversial programs during the Bush and Obama administrations. And it looks at the major revelations by former government NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

And that’s where we pick up tonight’s newsmaker interview.

General Keith Alexander was the director of the NSA from 2005 until he retired at the end of March this year. He also headed the U.S. Cyber Command.

And welcome to the NewsHour.

GEN. KEITH ALEXANDER (RET.), Former Director, National Security Agency: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, given all the news, all the stories that have been out there over the last year since the Snowden revelations, I think there are some people out there watching who think the NSA must collect whatever it wants to on anybody it wants to at any time. What do you want the American people to know about what the NSA does?

GEN. KEITH ALEXANDER: Well, I think you bring out a great point. First, they have to have the facts, because the facts are largely incorrect that’s being put out there, that the NSA would be collecting all the U.S. persons’ information, the content of their e-mails and their phone calls.

I think this is where the courts really play a key part, and what the judges have found and what they have asked us to do and allowed us to do actually comports with the Constitution. When we make a mistake, they correct it.

I think the key thing that I see in a lot of these discussions and the ones that we just saw is people looking at things and jumping to conclusions they’re collecting everything, they’re doing all this, when the programs, the 215 and the 702, are tailored to address problems that were found after 9/11.

If you remember where our nation was after 9/11 and what we now have to swing to do, and it brought in all three branches of the government, Congress, the courts and the administration.

JUDY WOODRUFF: To sign off on…

GEN. KEITH ALEXANDER: Well, to sign off, but also to oversee that we’re doing it right.

And you know that the review groups that have looked at this, in every case, they found that NSA is doing it exactly right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, without getting into the numbers, General Alexander, of these different programs, just to look at that excerpt that we watched, you had three longtime veterans of the NSA who suddenly realized that American citizens were being tracked, that their data, their phone calls were being tracked.

And you heard them say, this violated everything they had ever known to be the rules at the NSA. Weren’t they right to be alarmed about that?

GEN. KEITH ALEXANDER: Well, this happened five years before I got there, that part.


GEN. KEITH ALEXANDER: But let me tell you, my time there, and I know General Mike Hayden as well, I have not seen people doing what they are saying that they’re doing.

So I don’t see that, and every review group that’s looked at it has not seen that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you know what’s been going on at the agency.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Basically, they were saying the encryption went away and it was then possible to listen in and not only collect, but listen in on data about American citizens and their phone calls.

GEN. KEITH ALEXANDER: So, let’s — let’s delve into that.

It’s metadata on the 215 program. It has nothing to do with…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Without using the word 215.

GEN. KEITH ALEXANDER: OK, so the metadata program only has the two phone numbers, the duration and the date, time group of the call. You can encrypt it, but there’s no other U.S. persons’ information other than their number, and NSA doesn’t know whose number that is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, for the people out — again, there’s this — it seems to me, you talk to people in the agency and out, there’s this fundamental divide between those who say what’s going on is what you just described, this non-personal sweep of collection, collection of meta — so-called metadata.


JUDY WOODRUFF: And on the other hand, those who say, yes, they do that, and they listen, they have the ability to listen in on the contents of phone conversations.

GEN. KEITH ALEXANDER: So, you bring out a great point. You can see where the confusion immediately arises.

They have the ability or they could be doing this, but what every review group, Congress and the courts, have found out is, they’re not doing it. And if they do, we hold them accountable. The 12 cases are a great case in point.

So, it’s important that we step back and say, why do we have these programs or why is NSA involved? Look at this. The Church-Pike commission in the ’70s said we don’t want NSA collecting inside the United States, and, actually, we don’t want NSA collecting.

So why is NSA involved? And when you look at it, NSA’s expertise is overseas, foreign intelligence targets, terrorists. And that’s what we found in 9/11 is what we knew overseas wasn’t connected to the dot that FBI had. So it has nothing to do with us going after the content of U.S. persons. And I really think that’s the part we have got to help the American people understand.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, can you flatly declare that Americans’ phone calls are never listened to unless there’s been a court order?

GEN. KEITH ALEXANDER: Not in exactly those words.

And I don’t want to be — I don’t want to walk away from this, because I do think this is an important point. So, NSA goes after a foreign target. And why people equivocate is, if a foreign target is talking to a U.S. person, then it’s going to be covered.

And what we don’t want to do is say, well, OK, we didn’t mean that one. And so, as soon as you say that, people say, oh, but you lied. So what you want to say is, under FISA, NSA is not authorized to target the content of U.S. persons’ e-mail or phone, period.

Now, we are authorized to go after other targets, and there will be things like incidental collection, and the courts say, if you do that, here’s the process and procedures you must comply with, and we will check it, and they do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you’re saying those procedures are always followed?

GEN. KEITH ALEXANDER: I believe they are always followed.

Now, people make mistakes. If they make a mistake, we hold them accountable. We retrain them. Now — go ahead.

JUDY WOODRUFF: No, I was just going to — because I want to turn to a couple of other questions that are out there.

President Obama, when he ran for president, among other things, he pledged, in so many words, no more illegal wiretapping, no more what he called national security letters that would allow spying on citizens not suspected of a crime.

Were you surprised that once he got in office — and you were in office under President Bush and under President Obama — that President Obama was prepared to accept some of these things that he had said he wouldn’t?

GEN. KEITH ALEXANDER: Well, I didn’t track the election as close — I was actually looking overseas, as you would want me to.

But I actually sat down with him in a group in the White House Sit Room not long after he came in to review these programs. We’d had some compliance issues. We’d worked through the court how we were going to fix those. We had a chance to sit down with him.

Here’s where I saw it on both presidents. Their Article 2 authority to defend this country is paramount. And what I say were good people, both sides, doing their job to protect our nation and our allies. And President Obama is a better lawyer than me, constitutional law, saw that what the courts and the Congress was doing and what we were doing is exactly right.

Now, he did say, OK, how are we going to address these compliance issues in the future? How do you work that with the court? We set up better procedures that were more technical. We worked with Congress. It was a long six months, not because of him, but because of things we needed to fix.

So when I look at that, what it tells me is, there’s a lot more going on here than the American people get insights to, and it has nothing to do with us listening to U.S. persons or just trolling through U.S. persons’ data.

Our job — look at the terrorist attacks from 2012 to 2013, you saw some of that data. The number of people killed rose from 11,000 in 2012 to over 20,000 in 2013. Now, why is it that we and Europe have been so secure? And it’s these tools that help you. So, this is an issue that we, you and others, are going to have to help us face. How do we do this?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And many people listen to that and they say, well, that — can you give us an example?


JUDY WOODRUFF: Can you give us an example of a terrorist incident that was prevented because of this kind of work?

GEN. KEITH ALEXANDER: Absolutely, 2009, Najibullah Zazi.

It wasn’t for them the 702 — I know you don’t want me to use numbers, but the PRISM program, or the one that allows us to actually track bad guys who could be communicating with people in the U.S., went in foreign, we’re tracking the bad guy, but now they are going to talk to somebody in the U.S. and talk about bombs. That was found by this program.

It would not, was not found any other way. That case is out there. And then the other program came in and helped when the FBI said, this is his phone number. It gave us even greater legs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Something else that got a lot of attention, General…

GEN. KEITH ALEXANDER: Well, just one thing on that, because that was the New York City subway bomb.

That’s the one that people said would have been the biggest attack on our soil since 2001, 9/11. And if you didn’t have that program, we believe we wouldn’t have stopped it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Something else that got a lot of attention was, of course, the — when it became known, through Edward Snowden’s revelations, that the U.S. was spying on other heads of state, including German chancellor Angela Merkel.

Did President Obama know about this procedure, the fact that other heads of state, including Chancellor Merkel, were being spied on, listened to?

GEN. KEITH ALEXANDER: Well, I don’t know what President Obama knows and doesn’t know.

I do know that there’s a national intelligence priority framework that lays out what we’re supposed to do and how we do it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So that would explain it?

GEN. KEITH ALEXANDER: That would explain it.

It wouldn’t necessarily go through all this. I do know that he’s given out guidance. And I think the way he looks at this — I’m giving my impression — is that he said — and he said this publicly in his 17 January speech — in dealing with our allies, I will ask them. I won’t need intelligence support.

That’s a policy decision, and I think that that’s I’m comfortable, he’s comfortable with it. He’s getting the information he needs. That’s great. We have other things that we should go on and do, like terrorism, and cyber and other things.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me ask you about Edward Snowden.

You have argued time and again that he’s done great damage to U.S. national security. How do you quantify that?

GEN. KEITH ALEXANDER: Well, it goes back to that terrorist numbers that I gave you.

Here’s what I see. Terrorists and others are adjusting how they operate. We have been very good because we have great tools, great people in the military and the intelligence community helping to defend this country and in law enforcement.

When you take those tools away, it’s analogous to the “Wheel of Fortune,” when you can guess vowels and stuff. And, all of a sudden, they say, well, you can’t guess A and O anymore. You can’t guess some of these, but you have to figure out the puzzle.

And what we’re doing is, we’re taking away some of the tools that our intelligence analysts use to stop terrorist attacks. And I believe, given the fact that terrorist attacks are increasing and that our tools are being publicly revealed, that we put our nation and our allies in greater harm, and I believe that’s why we have said people are going to pay for this with their lives.

And that’s what caused me concern. So, that really gets us to, where do we need to be going?  You don’t want me thinking about Snowden. You want me and the rest of NSA — now, I know I’m retired — but you want them saying, OK, what’s the next step?


GEN. KEITH ALEXANDER: What can we do to protect the nation?

We will follow the laws. You tell us what tools we can use, we will tell you what gaps there are. But that’s what the nation really needs us to look at, the future.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what do you worry the most about now? I know Congress is looking at laws. There’s no indication they’re going to do anything, they’re going to pass a law, but they are looking at laws that would restrict some of what the NSA is doing.

GEN. KEITH ALEXANDER: Well, that’s our Constitution. You want the Congress, the courts and the administration.

What our job would be to say, here’s what we can do, and don’t be surprised, if you take away tools, that these types of things — and so here is where this has got to get based on facts. And it’s not today. You have already brought that out.

And that is, if the American people believe that NSA is spying on them, when we are fully employed going out after bad guys, then we have got this in the wrong place. We have led them to the wrong place, because that’s factually not what’s going on.

And it’s interesting. Look at the Geoff Stone article. He was on the board of the ACLU. He’s on the president’s review group. He said, as did Judge Pauley, NSA is doing what we have asked them to do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: These are some articles that have appeared.

GEN. KEITH ALEXANDER: That’s right. That’s right.

And so, from my perspective, here’s the case that we’re going to have. You will be here in a few months and somebody will say, how did you let this go through? And the answer is because we lost some of those tools. And so this is a time where I believe our politicians need to step back and carefully consider how we protect our nation and our civil liberties and privacy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you’re worried that may not be happening?

GEN. KEITH ALEXANDER: Well, I’m worried that people jump too quickly, rush to a conclusion, instead of standing back and saying, what’s good for this country? I was at NSA eight-and-a-half years.

I never saw anyone trying to do something against our civil liabilities and privacy. And if we did do that, we punished them. And that was the 12. Think of that, in eight-plus years, 12 people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: General Keith Alexander, former director of the National Security Agency, thank you for talking with us.

GEN. KEITH ALEXANDER: Thank you. Thank you for the time.