UPDATE: At the start of Wednesday’s hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Chair Sen. Barbara Mikulski announced she has agreed to Vice-Chair Sen. Richard Shelby’s request to have a full hearing on revelations about NSA surveillance and its PRISM data-mining program. The previously scheduled hearing, as a result, will focus on cyber-security issues generally and will not address the recent scandal. Gen. Alexander will face Senators’ questions about the programs another day. More updates below.
What was once scheduled as an ordinary hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee has become a closely-watched spectacle Wednesday, as National Security Agency (NSA) Director Keith Alexander testifies on the NSA and Prism scandals. New revelations are still emerging about the vast extent to which the agency has been monitoring telephone calls and Internet traffic–not just among foreign nationals but U.S. citizens.
Senators were expected to ask Alexander to explain, in public, the extent and detail of the NSA’s surveillance programs. In particular, the Senate has shown interest in whether Alexander, like Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, had appeared to mislead Congress in 2012 when asked directly about such spying.
Other legislators, both in the House of Representatives and the Senate, have shown concern about how a low-level contractor, Edward Snowden, was able to obtain top secret information–and how he was able to leak it to the media. Snowden is thought to be in Hong Kong, where he intends to fight likely extradition.
UPDATE: National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander, in his opening remarks before the Committee, said technological advances present an “incredible opportunity” for the nation in fields like education and medical care. He said these opportunities are complicated, though, by cyber espionage.
He said “disruptive attacks against infrastructure” can potentially become “destructive attacks” if they are not prevented.
Alexander said government cannot prevent these attacks without the support from industry because they “own and operate the nation’s infrastructure” and said the government had to be transparent in its dealings with industry. He also said those at the National Security Agency take civil liberty concerns to heart.
UPDATE: Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said he was not going to get into a discussion today about whether Director of National Intelligence James Clapper misled Congress during his testimony on March 12.
“I’m not going into questions on whether he contradicted himself in a couple of answers,” Leahy said.
UPDATE: Alexander said he is pushing to declassify some records about attacks the National Security Agency thwarted by using the various data surveillance programs “within a week.”
“I want the American people to know we are being transparent,” he told Leahy.
Alexander said he would give selected Members of Congress more classified information as well.
UPDATE: Alexander told Leahy Section 702 of FISA was critical in helping the agency stop Najibullah Zazi from bombing the NYC subway system in 2009. He said Section 702 “was the one that allowed us to know what was happening.”
When asked if Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which the agency may be using as the legal basis for the PRISM program, was critical to Zazi, he said, “Not to Zazi, because the first part in Zazi went to 702.” He did say Section 215 helped stop “dozens” of attacks.
He then said these authorities ultimately “compliment each other” and “work together” in helping the National Security Agency identify threats.
UPDATE: Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) asked Alexander if he was concerned that someone like NSA leaker Edward Snowden could get such access to the nation’s secrets.
Alexander responded that he had “great concerns” and it was something he had to fix and will look at.
UPDATE: Alexander said the agency had some records of one of the 9/11 hijackers and suggested they could have gone “backwards in time” if they were able to get various phone numbers.
When Sen. Mike Johanns (R-NE) asked Alexander if the agency can see what Americans are “googling or emailing,” Alexander said he needed a court order to search the contents of the records of any American.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) then clarified and said, “It’s my understanding that you have the meta data, you have the records, if you want to go to the content, you need a court order … to collect the content of the calls [just like you would in a criminal case]. Alexander then emphasized the agency needed to get a court order to look at the contents of phone and email records of any American.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) asked Alexander to describe the process the agency goes through to collect data on Americans. Alexander said the NSA does not get to “swim through” the data.
“What authorization gave you the grounds for acquiring my cell phone data?” Merkley asked while holding up his Verizon cell phone.
Alexander said it is a “complex area” and he needed to get the Department of Justice involved in the response so he gets it exactly right. Alexander suggested they discuss the matter at the classified hearing tomorrow. Feinstein suggested Alexander give Merkley the answer in writing so that he gets it exactly right.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) asked Alexander a “true or false” question about whether someone like Snowden could have the authority to tap into the phone and email records of nearly any American, as Snowden claimed in an interview with Glenn Greenwald.
“False, I know of no way to do that,” Alexander said.
UPDATE: Alexander tells Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) that the agency is protecting America’s civil liberties and privacy but could not explain it to Americans because the details were classified. Alexander said the NSA surveillance programs were not something the agency was doing “under the covers.” He insisted the agency is doing nothing wrong.
Udall points out, though, that it is difficult to have “a transparent debate about secret programs approved by a secret court issuing secret court orders based on secret interpretations of the law.”
UPDATE: Mikulski reads a tweet from a BuzzFeed reporter alleging she was “muzzling” senators so they do not ask questions about the NSA’s phone and Internet surveillance programs. She insisted she was not “muzzling” or “stifling” any senator from asking such questions. She then said “hi” to the reporter and said it was an “open hearing.”
UPDATE: Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) says we are not in a scrimmage but a war and said at a briefing yesterday, one of the briefers told her about the cyber threat challenges the agency faces and explained to her that the Department of Defense is a “Coke bottle cap” and the federal civilian government (.gov) is the coke bottle itself. She said the “companies and citizens” (.com) are the “entire room the bottle is in.” She said all the questions are being peppered to the top of the coke bottle but the “room that we are in” is the battleground that we are “fighting in.” She said it takes “huge resources” and an unbelievable compromise between the government and private sector. The Coke bottle analogy Landrieu relayed seems to have left many perplexed.
UPDATE: Alexander that Feinstein’s understanding that the NSA deletes phone records after five years was accurate.
UPDATE: Feinstein said it is important to show the cases at the classified briefing where the surveillance programs thwarted potential terrorist attacks. Alexander said he would attempt to do so.
UPDATE: Sen. Feinstein said many companies feel like they should only share information if they get liability protection. Alexander said liability insurance should be provided if the companies are sharing information with the government but not when they are sharing with other companies.
UPDATE: Mikulski said it is time for a “fresh, new national debate” about the balance beween privacy and security. She they will now move to a “closed hearing.”