He could have easily cancelled out. After all, General Keith Alexander, Director of the National Security Agency (NSA), has had a difficult summer with the Edward Snowden leaks and a nearly successful scale-back of his agency’s budget and authority by Congress earlier this month. But this morning he spoke before the Black Hat conference in Las Vegas, the largest gathering of hackers in the world, and methodically made his case for the cyber-eavesdropping that has placed his agency in the crosshairs of privacy advocates around the world.
Expressing concern that the agency’s “reputation has been tarnished because all of the facts are not on the table,” Alexander presented a series of slides that clarified how the NSA’s two most powerful email and phone call gathering programs worked. “I promise to tell you the truth,” Alexander told the group.
Alexander took great pains to make clear that the NSA does not obtain the content of calls, SMS text messages, caller names, credit card numbers or locational information. He showed a slide with a report sample that simply listed a caller’s phone number, the number called, and the duration. According to the NSA chief, only 22 people can approve adding phone numbers into the agency’s vast intelligence database and only 35 analysts are authorized to review queries on this information.
“The assumption is that people are out there wheeling and dealing,” said Alexander. “Nothing could be farther from the truth.”
He also challenged the notion that the secret federal court which is authorized to review requests for data gathering is nothing more than “a rubber stamp.” Praising the judges involved in the approval process, he expressed confidence that they viewed each and every request with a careful eye. “I can speak to this based on personal experience from the wire brushings I’ve received,” said Alexander who told the conference that he had appeared before the court “many times.”
Alexander indicated that in 2012 less than 300 phone numbers were approved for further NSA research and these resulted in 12 reports to the FBI.
The NSA chief cited the case of an uncovered terrorist plot to bomb the New York City subway system in 2009 as a direct example of how his agency’s work prevented an attack on the United States. Said Alexander, “This would have been the biggest terrorist attack since 9-11 on U.S. soil.”
Alexander further revealed that the NSA had successfully provided data to disrupt 54 “terrorist related activities,” including 13 in the U.S. and 25 in Europe.
The general’s speech was not warmly greeted by some of those in attendance at the Black Hat gathering. Just minutes before Alexander took the stage, security could be seen removing egg cartons found near the front rows of seats in the vast ballroom. His keynote address was also interrupted several times by audience members who accused him of lying to Congress and subverting the U.S. Constitution.
“I haven’t lied to Congress,” said Alexander at one point, departing from his prepared remarks. He also took pointed issue with one audience member who challenged him to read the Constitution. “I have,” Alexander fired back. “You should too.”