In a public appearance in Baltimore on Thursday, National Security Agency director Keith Alexander forcefully defended surveillance methods that have come under scrutiny this year but acknowledged that some of them may need adjustments.
Alexander, an Army general, said the NSA is looking for "better ways" to conduct its surveillance, but the agency based at Fort Meade has not been able to come up with such changes to its programs.
"These were programs that were developed to defend this country," Alexander said in a talk hosted by the Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. "I am not wedded to these programs. If we can come up with a better way of doing them, we should, period."
Alexander, who also heads the military cyber security agency U.S. Cyber Command, added: "There is nothing that anyone from NSA or Cyber Command has done that is wrong. From where I sit, we're doing everything we can to do this right. We hold ourselves accountable."
Alexander's visit comes amid growing scrutiny at home and abroad of U.S. surveillance activities.
News reports this week described a collaboration between the NSA and its British counterpart in which the government has been secretly collecting Internet data — almost certainly including American email traffic — as it moves to Google and Yahoo servers abroad. Reports of NSA surveillance activities in Europe — including collecting millions of telephone records and eavesdropping on foreign leaders — have drawn sharp criticism at home and abroad.
State Sen. Jim Rosapepe, a former ambassador to Romania, asked Alexander to explain the justification for tapping the phones of world leaders.
"I would actually turn it around and say, 'I think there's a better way to do it,'" Alexander responded. "We can look at some of these and say, some of this is not needed to defend the nation."
Alexander said that terrorism and cyber security gaps remain the greatest threats to the United States. He criticized the leaks of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and the media that published them, saying they have harmed the nation's security, its companies and relationships with allies. He said the surveillance programs are widely misunderstood by the public because Snowden and media outlets have misinterpreted the way they work.
In response to question from the audience of about 600 regarding the collection of metadata, Alexander said that Congress is debating changes to those programs and that if someone wanted to come up with a better plan, "I would hand off this hornets' nest."
"We have actually asked everybody to look at, what could you do in replacement of it, that would allow us to still connect the dots, but would be even easier and less intrusive," Alexander said. "No one has come up with one."
The NSA has been obtaining data directly from Google and Yahoo under court orders through the previously disclosed PRISM program, the Washingrton Post reported this week. According to the new disclosure, the NSA also has been taking data from abroad without permission — outside the oversight of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court — through a project code-named MUSCULAR.
Asked about the report at a public appearance Wednesday, Alexander said the NSA was not authorized to access companies' data centers, Politico reported. He said the agency must instead must "go through a court process" to obtain such content.
Documents leaked by Snowden do not say that the agency accessed data centers. They say the NSA collected the data, including entire copies of Yahoo email accounts, as they were sent over fiber-optic lines between company data centers.
NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines said "the assertion that we collect vast quantities of U.S. persons' data from this type of collection is not true."
"NSA applies attorney general-approved processes to protect the privacy of U.S. persons — minimizing the likelihood of their information in our targeting, collection, processing, exploitation, retention and dissemination. NSA is a foreign intelligence agency," Vines said in a statement. "And we're focused on discovering and developing intelligence about valid foreign intelligence targets only."
Testifying before the House Intelligence Committee this week, Alexander disputed published reports that the agency had obtained data from more than 170 million French, Spanish and Italian phone calls during a 30-day period from December 2012 to January 2013.
Alexander said the call records were provided by "foreign partners."
"This is not information that we collected on European citizens," he told the panel. "It represents information that we and our NATO allies have collected in defense of our countries and in support of military operations."
Under questioning from committee Chairman Mike Rogers, Alexander said the records were of calls "external to the country in which it was reported." He said neither the reporters nor Snowden understood how to interpret the classified documents.
U.S. intelligence officials have refused to say how the database was assembled or used, but suggested the phone records were related to counter-terrorism and force-protection efforts for U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Earlier, the United States drew fire from some of its closest allies over reports it had tapped the phones of foreign leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Merkel said the reports had "severely shaken" relations between Europe and the United States. "Trust needs to be rebuilt," she said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said her panel was not told the government was spying on friendly leaders.
The California Democrat, normally a staunch supporter of the Obama administration, said she is "totally opposed" to the practice, and vowed to launch a committee investigation.
She also said the White House had informed her that such surveillance would not continue.
White House officials say an ongoing review of U.S. spying practices is to be completed in December.
At the House hearing on Tuesday, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper said divining the intentions of foreign leaders — friends and foes alike — has always been a top priority for U.S. intelligence, Clapper said. "It's one of the first things I learned in intel school in 1963," he said.
Most countries, allies included, spy on the United States, Clapper said.
"Some of this reminds me a lot of the classic movie 'Casablanca,'" he said. "'My God, there's gambling going on here?' You know, it's the same kind of thing."
But some Democrats on the committee complained that lawmakers were not told about the spying on allied leaders.
"If you're tapping the phone of an ally, that is a significant intelligence activity that should be reported to the committee," said Rep. Adam B. Schiff, a California Democrat. "We have a lot more work to do with you in terms of getting the information we need."
Tribune Newspapers reporter Ken Dilanian contributed to this article.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun