NSA chief pushes back against legislative limits on data collection

Gen. Keith Alexander denies that spying efforts have gone too far.

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As news broke that the National Security Agency allegedly infiltrated the networks of Yahoo and Google, the NSA's outgoing director denied any overreach and defended broad data collection activities that he said have prevented terror attacks.

Gen. Keith Alexander, also commander of U.S. Cyber Command, warned that proposed legislation to limit bulk data collection would be detrimental to national security.

"If we stop that part, then it means there's a gap," Alexander said. "We'll do the best we can, but the ability to see what's inside going on and provide that [intelligence] doesn't exist anymore. We would have to come up with a workaround." He spoke Oct. 30 at a Bloomberg Government event in Washington, D.C.

The bipartisan legislation, introduced Oct. 29 by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), would amend the 2001 anti-terrorism law known as the Patriot Act, which Sensenbrenner originally helped author, to curtail the broad collection of U.S. citizens' private information.

Keith Alexander, DOD photo

Gen. Keith Alexander

"Over the past several months, Americans have learned that government surveillance programs conducted under [the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, in Section 215 of the Patriot Act] are far broader than previously understood," Leahy said in a statement. "And the world has learned that this surveillance has extended to millions of individuals in the global community, including some of our allies and their leaders. These revelations have undermined Americans' trust in our intelligence community, and harmed our relationships with some of our most important international partners."

Alexander fought back against the claims of spying on U.S. allies that in recent days have reached a fever pitch. He indicated that foreign surveillance activities of European countries have been a joint effort and, repeatedly echoing the comments of a former French intelligence official, it is part of regular global intelligence operations.

"Partnerships are very important here and it goes both ways," Alexander said. Bernard Squarcini, former head of the Direction Centrale du Renseignement Intérieur intelligence service, revealed that France has also spied on the U.S.

The implication of Squarcini's revelation, Alexander said, is "countries act in their best interest. Countries and their intelligence agencies receive requirements in their nation's interest, so from our nation's perspective, the question on the table is which is the greater national interest? And that's a policy decision, one that I think our policymakers are looking at."

Collecting data such as phone records, emails and other communications, whether domestic or international, are so critical to national security that the proposed legislation would increase the risk of a terror attack even more than it already has been as a result of Edward Snowden's leaked documents. The latest of those leaks, reported by the Washington Post, suggests NSA infiltrated the networks of Internet giants Google and Yahoo. Alexander denied any knowledge of such activities when questioned just as the news broke.

"Not to my knowledge, that's never happened," Alexander said.

But Alexander's primary points throughout the discussion centered on the legitimacy of NSA spying programs, and the importance of Congress not mitigating intelligence activities that he insisted are keeping the nation safe. Without directly mentioning the Leahy-Sensenbrenner bills, he pointed to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as a prime example of an intelligence failure – and asserted that tighter legislative controls could potentially contribute to a repeat.

"After 9/11, the intelligence community was beat up for failing to connect the dots. What that means is we know stuff about what's going on overseas, the FBI knows stuff about what's going on in this country – how do you connect the dots? That's where this metadata comes together," Alexander said. "I think the question is, there's a risk. There will be a congressional debate; we'll follow whatever rules they make. My job is to articulate that risk, Congress will legislate and the executive branch will weigh in. This is where it needs to be transparent to the American people."

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