Washington, DC – Leaks to the public about a classified National Security Agency terrorist surveillance program that collects data from the phone calls of Americans already have jeopardized national security, the NSA director told a Senate panel here June 12.
On June 6, from a hotel in Hong Kong where he had fled, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked information to two newspapers about classified NSA surveillance practices.
Testifying before the full Senate Appropriations Committee with representatives from Homeland Security, the FBI and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Army Gen. Keith B. Alexander, who is also commander of US Cyber Command, shared his concern for the nation.
“Great harm has already been done by opening this up, and the consequence, I believe, is [that] our security is jeopardized,” Alexander said.
“There’s no doubt in my mind,” the general added, “that we will lose capabilities as a result of this, and that not only the United States, but those allies that we have helped, will no longer be as safe as they were two weeks ago.”
Alexander said the surveillance program has disrupted or helped to disrupt in the United States and abroad “dozens of terrorist events,” including the 2009 case of Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan-American arrested as part of the 2009 US al-Qaida group accused of planning suicide bombings on the New York City subway system.
Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper told the Senate in March that the NSA collection program was critical to discovery and disruption of the Zazi case. Discovery in the case began with phone data surveillance information based on operatives overseas, Alexander explained.
“We saw connections to a person in Colorado, and that was passed to the FBI. The FBI determined who that was — Zazi — and [associated] phone numbers,” he said.
“The phone numbers on Zazi were the things that then allowed us to use the business-records [Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act] to go and find out connections from Zazi to other players throughout communities, specifically in New York City,” the general added.
Alexander said he is seeking to determine, with help from the intelligence community and other administration officials, how more details can be declassified so the program can be more fully explained to the public.
“We now know that some of this [classified information] has been released,” Alexander said. “So why does it make sense to explain to the American people so they have confidence that their government is doing the right thing? Because I believe we are, and we have to show them that.”
The general added, “We have great people working under extremely difficult conditions to ensure the security of this nation and protect our civil liberties and privacy, … [and] I would like the American people to know that, because they would be tremendously proud of the men and women of NSA who have done this for us for the last decade.”
The issue, Alexander said, “is we then have to debate how much [information] we give out and what does that do to our future security? That’s where the real debate is going to take place, because that’s the issue that is now before us.”
As they questioned Alexander and the other witnesses, some of the senators wanted to know how Snowden, a 29-year-old high-school and community-college dropout who held short-term and relatively low-level positions with the CIA, NSA and then was an NSA contractor, had access to such highly classified information.
Alexander noted that in the information technology arena, “some of these folks have tremendous skills to operate networks. That was [Snowden’s] job for the most part, from 2009 to 2010, as an IT system administrator within those networks. He had great skills in that area.”
But the general said he has grave concerns about Snowden’s access and about potential breakdowns in the oversight process.
“I think what we have to do is come back and perhaps look at the oversight mechanism we have, … the automated checks and balances that exist, and what we can do to improve those,” he told the Senate panel.
The IT infrastructure was outsourced about 14 years ago, which provided more federal work in that area to contractors, Alexander noted. “As a consequence,” he added, “many in government — not just us — have system administrators who are contractors working and running our networks.”
Snowden was a system administrator with access to key parts of the network, Alexander said. “So we’ve got to address that,” he acknowledged. “That is of serious concern to us, and something we have to fix.”
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine addressed Alexander at one point during the hearing.
“I saw an interview in which Mr. Snowden claimed that due to his position at NSA he could tap into virtually any American’s phone calls or emails,” she said. “True or false?”
“False,” the general replied. “I know of no way to do that.”
The senators also asked Alexander how the NSA and other intelligence organizations could avoid the need to hire young people with so little experience to make up the future cyber workforce.
“In the military, we are going to hire young folks … who graduate from high school to work in this area, and the key will be the training that we give them,” the general said. “Ideally we’d like to get four years out of a top-notch engineering school for some of the military positions, but we won’t get that, so we have a responsibility to bring them into the force and train them.”
It takes several years to train people in this area, Alexander told the panel. “So in effect, we’re running a cyber college for many of our young enlisted folks to get them to the requisite skills,” the general said. On the NSA side, he added, it’s easier to hire college graduates.
“What I need, I think, is greater scrutiny,” the general said. “I need to go back and look at what I am getting with my contract support and what are their capabilities and how do we manage that from a government perspective. That’s something I have concerns about.”