WASHINGTON — The director of the National Security Agency defended its controversial surveillance programs during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on Wednesday, as the questioning was repeatedly wrested away from the stated topic of cyber threats and to discussion of the NSA's data mining practices.
In response to tough questioning from a handful of senators, NSA and U.S. Cyber Command Director General Keith B. Alexander said that the agency had thwarted "dozens" of potential terrorist attacks using surveillance such as data-mining program PRISM, and that they were going to make an effort to get more information declassified. Alexander agreed that there were concerns surrounding Edward Snowden's access to so much classified information as a low-level government contractor, and said that Snowden had overstated what he was capable of in his role with the NSA.
Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy asked Alexander for the number of terrorist attacks that the NSA has been able to foil using powers given to them by Section 215 of the Patriot Act.
Alexander said that "dozens" of plots had been prevented but couldn't name exactly how many. "It is our intent" to be able to declassify and release exact numbers, Alexander said, with the hope of releasing them next week.
Although serious doubts have been raised about whether PRISM helped catch would-be New York subway suicide bomber Najibullah Zazi, Alexander said he believed the surveillance powers of the NSA, particularly under Section 702, were "not just critical, it is the one that developed the lead on it. The one that allowed us to follow the lead."
The Associated Press reported that the government, in declassifying details of the Zazi case to show PRISM's role, had "misstated key facts of the Zazi plot." The email that led to Zazi "could easily have been intercepted without PRISM."
Alexander avoided the question of whether or not the rapid increase in government orders under Section 215 (a rise, according to Senator Richard Durbin, from 21 orders in 2009 to 212 in 2012) means that the government is pulling data other than phone records and electronic communications. The Patriot Act puts data such as medical records and other "tangible things" in the category of information that the government can seek.
Alexander also said that the NSA purges its phone records after five years of collection.
Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon asked Alexander how the decision had been made to go from making searches under "reasonable grounds" to "all phone records, all the time, at all locations?" Merkley held up his phone, which he identified as using a Verizon plan, and asked Alexander what had authorized him to seek his data.
"I think we need to get the Department of Justice and others, because it is a complex area," Alexander said.
Two senators on the committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, tried to get the other senators to stop asking their questions during the hearing and instead save them for a closed meeting with Alexander afterward.
At the beginning of the hearing, Mikulski had specified that it would not focus on the spying program: "That's not for today," she said. Mikulski took poorly to criticism of her steering the questioning back to cyber threats, at one point calling out this reporter by name for a critical tweet.
But in spite of that, Alexander's statement for the record prepared before the hearing started included a long passage that obliquely addressed the uproar over the NSA's spying called "Guarding Privacy and Civil Liberties."
"Everything depends on trust," Alexander wrote. "We operate in a way that ensures we keep the trust of the American people because that trust is a sacred requirement. We do not see a trade-off between security and liberty. It is not a choice, and we can and must do both simultaneously."