NSA Director Defends Surveillance to Angry Audience

LAS VEGAS — National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander opened the Black Hat 2013 security conference here this morning with a defense of the NSA's recently leaked programs that was alternately rueful, defiant and witty.

"I promise to tell you the truth," Alexander said at the beginning of his keynote address, even as audience members passed around a carton of eggs that, thankfully, was not used.

The NSA surveillance programs exposed by leaker Edward Snowden exist because "terrorists live among us," Alexander explained.

As Alexander spoke, several hecklers yelled out questions.

MORE: Hackers Don't Believe NSA Chief's Denial of Domestic Spying (2012)

"Why'd you lie to Congress?" asked privacy advocate and cryptography expert Moxie Marlinspike from the audience.

"I haven't lied to Congress," Alexander responded.

"We stand for freedom," Alexander said at one point. 

"Bulls---," yelled another audience member, prompting Alexander to smile and say, "Not bad."

Foiling a plot

Alexander explained that there are two pieces of legislation that enable the NSA: Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, and Section 215 of the USA-PATRIOT Act of 2001.

The former enables collection and reading of the content of communications generated by non-U.S. persons, as with the XKeyScore program revealed by Britain's Guardian newspaper today; the second enables the collection of metadata, but not content, of U.S. persons.

Alexander showed how 702 and 215 — one of which collected Internet content generated by foreigners and included the PRISM program, the other of which analyzed metadata of communications of persons inside the United States — helped foil a planned al-Qaida attack on the New York subway system.

The tip-off was an email from a suspected al-Qaida member to a recipient near Denver. (London's Daily Telegraph said Scotland Yard intercepted the email during an investigation of a suspected British domestic terrorist cell.)

The FBI was alerted, and the NSA used the PRISM program, authorized under 702, to identify the recipient as Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan who had once manned a coffee cart in New York's financial district but who had moved to Aurora, Colo. It then used 215 to mine the metadata of Zazi's domestic phone calls to establish records of who he communicated with.

The metadata revealed several previously unsuspected co-conspirators, who were arrested with Zazi after the plot was foiled. (Zazi drove bomb-making materials from Denver to New York, but threw them away after his car was searched.)

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  • COLGeek
    Well done, Sir.
  • fixxxer113
    So the point he made, was that intelligence services do what the government tells them to do. And this makes it somehow justified? Is it OK to rob people of their privacy? OK to grab them in the night and ship them to secret torture facilities around the world? OK to deny someone entry to the US and put him in a terror watch list because of something stupid he said on Facebook? They should've thrown rocks at him, not eggs...
  • StrangeDaze
    Shredding our constitution just because Congress can't read is no excuse for what the NSA is doing. You cannot stop all the people that want to harm the US. If you want to make a dent in that activity, try living peacefully with the rest of the world, stop engaging in war around the world, and then not only will terrorist attacks decrease, the US government can abide by the principles our country holds dear (hello Constitution, Bill of Rights, Statue of Liberty).

    But I fear we are past that, thanks to the NSA and Congress. It will only get worse before it gets better.
  • COLGeek
    GEN Alexander was the messenger. If the laws that govern these programs are so offensive, then take it up with your member of Congress. Congress makes the rules, BTW. Remember, don't shoot the messenger.

    With this in mind, just exactly what rights have been lost by the use of these programs?

    Also consider that your phone company, ISP, and even your credit card providers know more about you and track your activities to a far greater extent than any of these much maligned programs do.

    Have a good day!
  • leo2kp
    At the risk of making some enemies, I for one am grateful for what is being attempted with the NSA. I will trade a little privacy for security. Even if we can't thwart every attack, we sure have a shot at saving lives. What people are suggesting is that the government be completely ignorant of what is being done within its borders, and plotted against it abroad. Would that make you feel safer? Let's say the NSA didn't exist and we had another 9/11. We'd be complaining that the government wasn't doing enough, that it could have been prevented, blah blah blah. Ok, well part of the solution is to intercept any viable form of communication, but we don't like that idea of course. Government should magically know what's going on without ever looking at private information of innocent people. Because apparently there is a way to filter out and pinpoint terrorists, right? Naw, I don't buy it guys. It's the same kind of thing as with the company you work for. Your emails, your phone calls, whatever you do on your PC - is tracked and used for reporting but nobody bitches about that. And let's use, as an example, recent stories about kids who commit suicide or even commit a violent crime. Everyone talks about the signs that were there and complains that nobody acted on them. So now what? Do we act on any small sign, or just wait for something bad to happen? I think NSA needs to do their job and maybe people should just not do stupid shit if it's going to get you in trouble.
  • TripGun
    This and no other is the root from which a tyrant springs; when he first appears he is a protector. - Plato