By Cheryl Pellerin
The director of the National Security Agency said he has proof that terrorist groups are benefitting from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s public disclosure about agency data-gathering efforts.
Army Gen. Keith B. Alexander, also commander of U.S. Cyber Command, spoke Thursday with Pete Williams, chief justice correspondent for NBC News, at the annual Aspen Institute Security Forum in Colorado.
“We have concrete proof that … terrorist groups and others are [already] taking action, making changes, and it’s going to make our job tougher,” said Alexander, comparing the leaks of such sensitive information to, in football parlance, giving the enemy the U.S. playbook.
There are reasons that such information is kept secure, the general said, and it’s not because the American people aren’t trusted.
“The reality is that terrorists use our communications devices,” Alexander said. “They use our networks, they know how to plan around this. They use Skype, they use Yahoo, they use Google. They are amongst us and they’re trying to kill our people.”
Snowden, now a fugitive wanted by the United States, was a system administrator who ran what is called the SharePoint account as a contractor for NSA in Hawaii, Alexander said.
The former NSA contractor’s responsibility, the general said, was to move data, and as a system administrator he had access to thumb drives and other tools.
“What we had is a person who was given the responsibility and the trust to do this job. [Snowden] betrayed that responsibility and trust and took this data,” Alexander said.
Meanwhile, the general added, the U.S. government is “taking actions to fix this.”
In his leaks to the media, Snowden described two NSA surveillance programs authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which Congress created in 2008. Section 702 of FISA authorizes access to records and other items of foreign targets located outside the United States under court oversight.
Section 215 of the Patriot Act broadened FISA to allow the FBI director or another high-ranking official there to apply for orders to produce telephone records, books and other materials to help with terrorism investigations.
Revelations about the programs have launched a nationwide debate about citizens’ privacy, because Section 215 allows NSA to collect something called metadata — information about call length and connections — for phone calls that occur inside the United States and between the United States and other countries.
In 2012, these programs resulted in the examination of fewer than 300 selectors, or phone numbers, in the NSA database, Alexander said.
“That’s a very focused effort,” the general said. “It’s based on a nexus to al-Qaida and terrorism … meant to connect the dots between foreign intelligence agencies and the … FBI.”
In the same year, he added, that surveillance effort helped stop 42 different plots, and 12 people were caught providing material support to terrorists. And 41 of the terrorist actions that were prevented would have affected U.S. allies like Germany, France, Denmark and other countries around the world, the general said.
Pulling such information together is like putting together a puzzle or connecting the dots, Alexander said.
“What we’re trying to do for the United States is to provide that information to the FBI,” he added. “What you can’t afford to do is what we did in 9/11 — not have enough information to connect the dots. We all came together as a country and said never again. We don’t want another 9/11.”
The track record since 9/11 is extraordinary, the general said, referring to the work of the FBI, CIA, NSA and the Defense Department to the nation.
In a comment to Alexander, Williams said Apple, Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft, Facebook and several other computer and communication companies wrote to the administration and copied Alexander, requesting the legal authority to publicly disclose the number of national security requests for information they get from NSA.
“Would you be in favor of that?” Williams asked the general.
Alexander said yes, but with a caveat.
“These carriers are compelled to support us in these programs, they don’t have a choice … and these are global companies. They are oftentimes compelled, if they have a headquarters in another country, to do the same thing — a lawful intercept program,” the general said.
The FBI and the NSA are examining how to comply with the computer and communication companies’ request “without hurting any of the ongoing FBI investigations,” Alexander said.
“From my perspective, what the American people and the rest of the people of the world should know, what these companies are doing, they’re compelled to do,” the general said.
“And I will tell you,” Alexander added, “they know that they’re helping us save lives here and in other countries around the world, and that’s good business.”