WASHINGTON–Faced with trying to accomplish its mission in an environment that suddenly has become quite hostile and inquisitive about its methods, the National Security Agency is becoming more and more public about the challenges that lie ahead and how the agency plans to address them.
One of the key parts of this is a public defense of the legal architecture that the NSA uses as the foundation for its intelligence collection methods. Specifically, the agency is expressing concern about the emerging challenges to the Section 215 authority it uses to justify the collection of telephone metadata. In a speech at the Billington Cybersecurity Summit here Wednesday, NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander said that the ability to collect that is vital to the agency’s mission and the security of the country and that the intelligence community’s shortcomings leading up to 9/11 show that.
“What we were blamed for as an intelligence community is not connecting the dots. FISA is the key to connecting the dots. It’s been sensationalized and inflamed in much of the reporting that we’re listing to and recording Americans’ phone calls. That’s flat wrong,” Alexander said. “Under FISA we would have to have an individualized warrant to do that. What we do need is the call detail records that we get in 215. We need those to connect the dots from what the NSA can see overseas to what the FBI sees here in the U.S.
“In 2012, less than 300 numbers were looked at. That’s what we need to connect the dots. It provides us the speed and agility in crises like the Boston Marathon. What’s been hyped up in the reporting is that we’re listening to your phone calls and reading emails. That’s not true.”
In addition to the Section 215 authority, which has come under criticism from some members of Congress recently, Alexander and Debora Plunkett, the director of the information assurance directorate at NSA, who also spoke at the event, said that the government and private sector both need to develop new hardware and software systems that are more resilient to attack. Those systems should be capable of preventing attackers–and, presumably, privileged insiders such as Edward Snowden–from compromising key systems and walking away with valuable data.
“We have to make our networks defensible. We have to harden them and be able to defend them,” Plunkett said. “Security information sharing is a critical part of this because we have to be able to speak the same language. Resiliency is necessary to limit that damage.”
Both Alexander and Plunkett made it clear that the information stolen and leaked by Snowden, a former NSA contractor, could have an adverse effect on the agency’s ability to operate and collect intelligence in the future. Alexander said that Snowden’s actions–though he wouldn’t call him by name–may end up helping foreign adversaries.
“The NSA is the best tech agency bar none. We trusted him and he betrayed that trust. That won’t happen again. We’ll fix that. But that doesn’t make him a hero, stealing our data and going to China and Russia. I’ll tell you, the people who learn from this are the ones who will hurt our nation and our people. The tools that were so effective over the last decade won’t be as effective,” he said.
Alexander said that the agency can’t do its job without the support of the American people. That support has been damaged by the revelations of the last few months, something that Alexander knows well.
“You are guaranteed that we will do everything we can to protect your civil liberties, privacy and defend this country. That’s our job and that’s what we do,” he said.
“The american people have to weigh in and help us get the tools we need to protect Americans’ privacy.”
Plunkett, who said she was met at her front door earlier this year by her daughter with questions about what the NSA was doing with its collection programs, said that she has no qualms about the way that the agency conducts its business.
“We have vigorous discussions and debates and when we can make decisions, we do. We agonize over making sure that we can get a step ahead of a very determined set of adversaries that would do us harm,” she said. “I wouldn’t be a part of, on a personal level, anything that would put that at risk. We now welcome this debate and look forward to getting beyond it.
“I have never been awakened wondering what the NSA is doing.”