WASHINGTON — Increasingly uneasy senators subjected Gen. Keith Alexander, the head of the National Security Agency, to a tough grilling Wednesday as congressional concern grew over his agency’s cybersnooping.
Alexander tried to set a gentle tone. “I want the American people to know that we’re trying to be transparent here, protect civil liberties and privacy but also the security of this country,” he told the Senate Appropriations Committee. He said the NSA’s domestic surveillance programs had disrupted, or helped disrupt, dozens of terrorist threats.
But in his first public appearance before lawmakers since controversy erupted over the programs, senators peppered him with questions about how far the spying went and how far it could go. Great Britain’s newspaper The Guardian reported that one program involves cellphone records, and The Guardian and The Washington Post reported that another program permits the government access to the online activity of users at nine Internet companies.
Committee Chairman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., tried to discourage questions about the controversy. The hearing’s subject was supposed to be the cybersecurity budget. At one point, she responded to a tweeter who complained during the hearing that she was trying to stifle such questions, saying she was doing no such thing.
She couldn’t keep her colleagues from dwelling on the subject, as they demonstrated throughout the two-hour session that they’re increasingly concerned, or at least more curious, about the programs. Earlier in the week, lawmakers tended to be supportive, but the drumbeat of revelations – and unanswered questions – appeared to be slowly altering their mood.
Though support for changing the law significantly remains minimal, senators were clearly more inquisitive. Administration officials plan a closed-door Senate briefing Thursday, and Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who’s defended the programs, told Alexander they should bring details of specific cases to the session.
Tough questions Wednesday came from both sides of the aisle.
Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., said he had an “uneasy notion” that the surveillance might be too extensive. He asked whether a telephone-record search could include all of Omaha.
“We won’t search that unless we have some reasonable, articulable suspicion about terrorist-related organizations. If we see that, we have to prove that we have that. Then given that, we can now look and say, who was this guy talking to in the United States and why?” Alexander said.
Johanns kept probing. “Does this extend beyond telephone records? For example, could you check and see what that person is Googling? Could you check and see who that person is emailing?” he asked.
Yes, but not that easily. “Going to the next step, once we identify a person of interest, then it goes to the FBI. The FBI will look at that and say, what more do we need to now look at that individual themselves? So there are issues and things that they would then look at if passed to them,” Alexander explained.
Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill., asked about Edward Snowden, the contractor and former NSA employee who leaked the information. How could he “have such access . . . at such a young age, with a limited educational and work experience, part of it as a security guard?” Durbin asked.
“I have grave concerns over that, the access that he had, the process that we did,” Alexander said. “We do have to go back and look at these processes.”
Other senators, including Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who chairs the Judiciary Committee, grilled Alexander about transparency.
Merkley and Leahy are among eight senators who are pushing legislation to require the U.S. attorney general to make public the secret decisions of the court that grants permission to collect such records. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has turned down 11 such applications among the more than 30,000 cases it’s considered since it was founded in 1979.
If nothing else, Leahy said, knowing more would help lawmakers fine-tune the laws. “The intelligence community has told us that really we obviously don’t have the ability as simple senators to know anything as well as you do and so they do not need changes,” he said sarcastically. “I’m told they are critical to our counter-terrorism efforts; Congress shouldn’t tinker with them at all.”
Leahy asked Alexander for precise data on how often phone records obtained through the surveillance law had helped disrupt or discover threats.
“I don’t have those figures today,” Alexander said, saying he hoped to have them next week. He estimated that dozens of threats had been curbed.
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