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NSA Chief Grilled at Senate Hearing on Secret Surveillance Programs

June 12, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: For the first time, the man running the National Security Agency spoke publicly today about extensive surveillance of phone calls and online communications. He defended the efforts and said, “We’re trying to protect Americans.”

Ray Suarez begins our coverage.

RAY SUAREZ: Army Gen. Keith Alexander came to a Senate hearing to discuss cyber-security in general. But the questions quickly turned to surveillance.

Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy pressed him to tell what the NSA has to show for its efforts.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY, D-Vt.: Has the intelligence community kept track of how many times phone records obtained through Section 215 of the Patriot Act were critical to the discovery and disruption of terrorist threats?

GEN. KEITH ALEXANDER, Director, National Security Agency: If I gave an approximate number to them in a classified …


KEITH ALEXANDER: … classified, but it’s dozens of terrorist events that these have helped prevent.

RAY SUAREZ: Others, including Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley, wanted to

know more.

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY, D-Ore.: So, here, I have my Verizon phone. My cell phone. What authorized investigation gave you the grounds for acquiring my cell phone data?

KEITH ALEXANDER: You know, I think on the legal standards and stuff, on this part here, I think we need to get Department of Justice and others, because it is a complex area. I think what we’re doing to protect American citizens here is the right thing. Our agency takes great pride in protecting this nation and our civil liberties and privacy.

RAY SUAREZ: Alexander said he’s bothered by how Edward Snowden, an intelligence contractor at NSA, could learn of the surveillance programs, and then leak them. Snowden’s last known whereabouts were Hong Kong.

Today, he was heard from again. In an interview with The South China Morning Post, he declared: “I am neither traitor nor hero. I’m an American.” He insisted he wouldn’t flee. Instead, he said, “My intention is to ask the courts and people of Hong Kong to decide my fate.”

Many in Congress have condemned Snowden and defended the NSA’s activities, which key committees monitored all along. Others voiced new concern yesterday as they emerged from closed-door meetings with intelligence officials.

Democratic Congressman Brad Sherman of California said he was surprised by the scope of the monitoring under the secret FISA court.

REP. BRAD SHERMAN, D-Calif.: I didn’t know a billion records a day were coming under the control of the federal executive branch.

RAY SUAREZ: Maryland Democrat Dutch Ruppersberger said it’s high time for a full-scale airing of the privacy-vs.-security issue.

REP. DUTCH RUPPERSBERGER, D-Md.: Congress needs to debate this issue and determine what tools we give to our intelligence community to protect us from terrorist attacks.

RAY SUAREZ: Lawmakers will get to ask more questions tomorrow, behind closed doors, when the House and Senate receive separate briefings on the NSA’s surveillance.