TU Global: Reflections on NSA
Holding a hornet’s nest. That’s how General Keith Alexander, the director of the National Security Agency and Commander of the U.S. Cyber Command, analogized the intelligence and surveillance abilities of his agency under fire last Thursday night.
I guess you could say I was lucky enough to see him speak downtown on Halloween at an event put on by the Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. His speech consisted of part defense of the agency’s programs and part damage control in response to the barrage of negative stories and further document leaks by former contractor Edward Snowden.
The agency has been a consistent punching bag for the media over the past few months. As more and more revealing documents are released weekly by Snowden, the international community, foreign governments, online companies and even other U.S. government agencies are continually finding themselves in a position to complain about diminished levels of privacy and the deteriorating legitimacy of oversight put in place to rein in the agency.
On Thursday, General Alexander defended the agency with the usual argument that their systems only collect information regarding the time, duration, and participants of phone calls/texts, not the actual content of them unless they have a court order resulting from suspicious communications between domestic and foreign callers. He struck the typical 9/11 sensitivity chord saying that the attacks could have been prevented had they had the technology to “connect the dots,” and cited recent examples of terrorist plots foiled with NSA data.
He reminded the audience that everyone at the NSA takes an oath of office and that their data and even his own and his family’s data is in their systems. He denied recent reports that the agency had spied on foreign government officials and citizens saying that the surveillance was for NATO military purposes only and laid the blame for the recent phone-tappings of leaders like German chancellor Angela Merkel at the feet of foreign ambassadors for making such requests.
If anything General Alexander’s remarks caused me even more confusion than clarification. He spent half of the time defending the agency’s programs and then another good portion jokingly admitting that he’s “not wedded to these programs,” and that a good alternative to the collection of mass meta-data has been hard to come by.
Once again, he put the blame on government officials and congressional committees contesting that they’re the ones who make the policies; the NSA only serves to implement them. With his tone of moral righteousness and concern for the nation’s security, it was hard to take away a solid sense of trust from his remarks amid contradictory statements from John Kerry and the White House all signaling a lack of coordination and consensus between agencies. Members of Congress are supposed to be playing the blame game, not the White House, and the agency entrusted to keep use safe from terrorists.
After pointing a finger at Edward Snowden, Alexander accused the media for making these classified documents about collection methods public knowledge and blowing the situation out of proportion. The relationship between Snowden and the papers, he said, threatens the effectiveness of the NSA’s work and makes the country more vulnerable.
Such is true. The world now knows more about the agency’s top-secret work than they probably should. Cyber warfare is on the rise and our enemies are most likely working to subvert these digital surveillance methods which could make preventing terrorism much more difficult. These journalists, to a certain extent, may be exploiting these documents and giving the NSA—an agency that despite their lack of transparency and overreach does protect us everyday—a bad rep.
But the fact of the matter is, these documents reveal quite blatantly that the NSA is going far beyond its reach and often working, as John Kerry said, “on autopilot” without regard for its strict oversight. The hornet’s nest is not only this buzzing web of free information that only the NSA has access to, but the thousands of documents yet to be released that will expose where the agency has gone contrary to its claims of transparency.