Four-star Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency, spent the better part of his Thursday night interview at the Aspen Security Forum explaining that Big Brother isn’t prying into phone calls, emails and social media to the extent that many Americans believe.
Alexander, who also heads the U.S. Cyber Command, also said that the mission of protecting American lives from terrorism outweighs many privacy concerns and that U.S. military and security officials and personnel are maintaining a targeted effort, within the confines of the law, against those who seek to do the nation harm.
“In order to do that, we need programs that we didn’t have prior to 9/11,” he said following a kickoff question from Pete Williams of NBC News. “I think one of the biggest misunderstandings is what these programs do and what they don’t do. ...From my perspective, the most important thing we can do is inform the American people on what these programs do.
“I get a lot of questions about, ‘Are you reading my emails? Are you listening to my phone calls?’” Alexander continued. “The answer was, to solve 9/11, we needed some capabilities to connect the dots that we couldn’t do prior to 9/11. If you think that we would listen to everybody’s telephone calls and read everybody’s emails to connect the dots, ... that’s not logical. That would be a waste of our resources to get there.”
He later said, “You need the haystack to find the needle.” Security officials aren’t interested in every piece of straw in the haystack, just those that will lead them to the needle, Alexander suggested.
It would be highly inefficient to try to root out terrorism by monitoring and analyzing billions of pieces of communications every day, Alexander said. He said the NSA collects “metadata” information — the origin, target and frequency of phone calls and other types of electronic communications — and analyzes it to determine links to individuals who might have connections to terrorism.
“If you tried to just collect everybody’s email and sat down and tried to read them all, ... it would be operationally ineffective and inefficient,” Alexander said. “So what you need is a metadata program to steer it.
“We are a foreign intelligence agency. Our job is to go after foreign intelligence requirements. We don’t listen to phone calls of people in Brazil just for fun or read their emails. Nor do we do that in Germany. If we see a terrorist trying to get into Germany, we use metadata to find out who it is, and we pass that on to the German authorities.”
Likewise, if there is a suspected terror link in the United States, that information is passed along to the FBI, he said. It’s crucial for all U.S. governmental agencies, mainstream media and citizens to work together in stamping out potential terrorist activity, Alexander said.
“Think about what we’re trying to do, and help us defend this country and protect our civil liberties and privacy,” he said. “If anybody has a better way to do it than what we’re doing today, we want to hear that.”
The media and the public often miss the big picture about the overall goal of protecting the lives of Americans and U.S. allies, he implied. Using technology and metadata, 54 potential terrorist plots have been snuffed out since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Alexander said.
“We all came together as a country and said, ‘Never again,’” he said. “Look at the track record since 2001. It’s extraordinary what the FBI, CIA, NSA, Defense Department has done to protect this country.”
He said 41 of the 54 terrorist plots were broken up overseas.
“Germany, France, Denmark and other countries around the world benefited from what the United States did here,” Alexander said.
The defense of the nation is a personal issue to Alexander, 61, who was appointed to the head of the NSA by former President George W. Bush in 2005 and retained by President Barack Obama.
“What’s the value of an American citizen?” he asked rhetorically. “It’s priceless. That’s our friends; that’s our family. That’s what we vowed to take care of. That’s our job to defend this nation. What we’re not asking is for data that we’re just going to troll through, ... but we do need (access to) the information to protect this nation.”