Speaking before an audience of audibly skeptical hackers, Army General Keith Alexander, head of the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) sought to “correct the record” on revelations about the US Government spying at home and abroad. The General offered the opening keynote at the BlackHat 2013 Conference, currently underway in Las Vegas, Nevada. The speech is the first public address given to security researchers by the General since leaker Edward Snowden exposed the spying programs to The Guardian.
“Metadata was the least intrusive method we could figure out,” he said by way of explaining the type of data collected. The General emphasized that government workers and contractors cannot actually see the names or content of communications transmitted and must instead piece together intel by looking at phone numbers and asking the FBI or other appropriate agencies for the ability to inquire further.
Tension was noticeable throughout the room as the General spoke. He was interrupted several times by loud hecklers shouting “freedom,” and “we don’t trust you.” The outbursts highlighted a deep schism that has emerged between security researchers and the intelligence community since the beginning of the Snowden affair. Tweets and chatter throughout the audience raised a number of questions about violation of civil liberties, while the General pivoted to the number of terrorist attacks thwarted by the programs. By way of example, he explained how PRISM provided the tip off of thwarted 2009 New York Subway bombing, plotted by Najibullah Zazi. He also highlighted 20 cryptologists who died while serving the US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Notably, he dismissed accounts by Congresspeople and some media reports that Congress was not briefed on PRISM. “Congress conducted a four-year review of the program,” the General said. “They found that the NSA never acted outside the bounds of the law. People say ‘well they could,’ the fact is they don’t.” The obvious unsaid there is whether the bounds of the law go too far.
He went on to say that the FISA court, the secret court responsible for approving spying activities is not a rubber stamp despite the low number of requests that have actually been refused. “I can tell you, I sit on the other side of that table … the wire brushings I’ve received from that court, it is no rubber stamp.” The General also provided a few details on the members of this court, “these are people who know they may never serve on the Supreme Court, but they believe passionately in serving their country.”
Alexander has been at the conference since yesterday and spoke privately with some attendees, many which head up technology companies. In the keynote he noted that these companies are not willingly giving up information, “let me be clear, technology companies are court ordered to provide information,” he said. During the audience question and answer period when the question of whether these programs harm the competitiveness of US companies, he deflected underscoring instead, the lawfulness of such data capture.
“I believe these programs could be models for other countries around the world,” the General said noting the multi-faceted oversight that includes all levels of the US Government, defense apparatus and Court system. According to the General, 54 potential attacks have been thwarted since the creation PRISM and the information collected under Sections 215 and 702 authorities granted by US law on surveillance.
*The image is one of the slides from the presentation.