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Former NSA Director Reflects On Snowden Leaks

Gen. Keith Alexander defends NSA's controversial spying programs as lawful.

Washington, D.C. — MIRCon — Gen. Keith Alexander, the former director of the National Security Agency (NSA), here today described the fallout from the Edward Snowden leaks as "the low point" of his tenure at the intelligence agency.

"Not because [Snowden] took it [the documents]… but because people believed the NSA was doing something wrong. But we were doing exactly what our country asked us to do to protect against terrorist acts with laws approved by the administration, Congress, and the courts," Alexander said here yesterday during the question-and-answer portion of his keynote address at FireEye's MIRCon conference. "Our nation's programs are to protect our nation and our allies. To have people at NSA treated like rotten people… was absolutely wrong. The way it was characterized was sensationalized and inflamed."

Alexander said in his keynote that he had "one of the best jobs in the world" serving as director of the NSA. "Because we did really neat things. Some have been revealed publicly, and not in a favorable light. Some have not been revealed, but have saved lives."

The former NSA director was asked whose phone call data is stored in the NSA's databases under the agency's controversial program exposed in the Snowden leaks. Alexander said with phone-records surveillance metadata collected via its Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) program, the agency can drill down into call traffic to and from known terrorists, for example. "Our data is in there, my data is in there. If I talk to an Al-Qaeda operative, my chances of being looked at are really good." If you don't make calls to an operative, then the NSA won't be looking at your call data, he said.

The agency studies some 140 to 180 numbers per year culled from the metadata information it gathers in FISA, he said. "Everything the NSA does with this program is audited 100 percent," he said.

As for the NSA's data-gathering program under FISA 702 -- which includes content of emails, instant messages, browsing history, and other online communications -- Alexander said if a citizen comes in contact with a terrorist, the NSA will likely be looking at those records. He reiterated that the agency handles that data carefully: "The people who touch [this] data go through 400 hours of training on how to deal with this data. That's more [training] than we give pilots."

When asked about revelations that the US and its allies monitor phone calls of one another's leaders -- such as reports of the US monitoring of German chancellor Angela Merkel's calls --Alexander called the practice "a tough issue" driven by the reality that nations act in their best interests, and the US isn't the only ally keeping tabs on foreign leaders' calls.

"We at times want to make sure a war doesn't go on in a certain area. In the Middle East, if players are doing something in that area that is a very hot spot, it's important that our political and military leaders understand what's going on. If we need to collect it, eyes wide open, I need this for the good of the nation and allies. We need to be willing to say that to the allies" as well, and those will be political decisions made in the future, he said.

Alexander said the key elements to defending the nation's networks from today's cybercrime, cyber espionage, and politically motivated attacks include situational awareness, training security experts in both offense and defense, cybersecurity legislation, and closer coordination between government and industry in protecting networks. "We have no way of working together" right now.

"But nothing prevents industry and government from working together for a common cause to defend ourselves. And we should do that." If small and midsized organizations worked with government and private industry, too, there would be even more attack intelligence that could be gathered. Sharing that information at "network speed" would be significant, he said. "Think how much better our cyber defense would be. We can and should do" this.

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Executive Editor of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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Marilyn Cohodas
Marilyn Cohodas,
User Rank: Strategist
10/8/2014 | 10:58:30 AM
NSA training
Alexander said, "The people who touch [this] data go through 400 hours of training on how to deal with this data. That's more [training] than we give pilots."

That doesn't give me a whole lot of confidence about the next time I step onto an airplane. 
Some Guy
Some Guy,
User Rank: Moderator
10/8/2014 | 6:10:52 PM
If you were surprised by NSA scope, you weren't paying attention
If anyone was surprised by the types and scope of NSA's activities, I can only conclude they weren't paying attention. For the most part I agree with Gen. Alexander's assessment that what they were doing was legal. I think it's unfortunate that Whistleblowers in the NSA really have no choice beyond blowing up their lives; there has to be a middle path that identifies potential problems, allows for the fully informed electorate and discourse that has been missing and gets them fixed without having to give up one's country.

My big criticism of NSA is their bad for not having the data encryption at rest and sufficient, timely and appropriate access & audit controls. The harm was completely preventable. Snowden shouldn't have been able to take anything with him.
User Rank: Strategist
10/13/2014 | 3:59:42 PM
We're doomed
While the NSA Director is correct in his assessment that what the NSA did was legal, no one ever bothered to ask, "should we be doing this?".  This is where the ethics break-down occurs.  Collecting the data of U.S. citizens (and even many of our allies) is wrong.  The entire U.S. Gov't response to 9-11 was the contemporary equivalent of a sledgehammer wielded by Steinbeck's Lenny - bound by the constraints of political correctness - looking for a nail to hit. 

For example, just look at airport security.  Who can honestly say it's NOT security theater?  Who can honestly say it has made us more secure?

This program has saved lives?!?! Really?  Show me.  Prove the value that any exclusive component of this program has saved a life.  And even if it somehow managed to save a life, how little return has been proven and at what cost?  The potential cost of our freedom by the not unforeseeable misuse of our data.  Or maybe the insane amount of resources spent on this program that could've been better used in actual proven security measures, like say, I dunno, documenting everyone who comes into this country, especially if they're coming from high security risk countries, profiling individuals and tracking where they go and maybe even raising red-flags if they sign up for extracirricular activities... like flying lessons.
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