“Dozens” of terror attacks have been thwarted by a program to gather and analyze massive amounts of Internet and telephone data, the National Security Agency (NSA) director told US lawmakers on Wednesday.
Facing skeptical questions from lawmakers after a rogue technician leaked the secret operation, NSA Director General Keith Alexander, who also heads US Cyber Command, insisted that the program is legal and operates under judicial oversight.
“It’s classified, but it’s dozens of terrorist events that these have helped prevent,” he told the hearing, the first time he had been questioned in public since 29-year-old former contractor Edward Snowden spilled the beans.
“I want the American people to know that we’re being transparent in here,” he said, warning that “the trust of the American people” was a “sacred requirement” if his agency was to be able to do its job.
Could the revelation help terrorists avoid surveillance?
“They will get through and Americans will die,” Alexander said. “Great harm has already been done by opening this up. The consequence, I believe, is our security has been jeopardized.”
Snowden, a technician working for a private contractor and assigned to an NSA base in Hawaii, disappeared last month after downloading a cache of secret documents and surfaced over the weekend in Hong Kong to give media interviews.
China has said little on the case and yesterday it appeared to keep its distance.
“I have no information to offer,” Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying (華春瑩) told reporters in Beijing when asked about Snowden.
Hua dodged questions about whether Washington had approached Beijing seeking Snowden’s extradition and how China would react if Snowden applied for asylum.
Snowden told Hong Kong daily the South China Morning Post that he would resist any attempt at extradition.
Chinese state media has also remained relatively quiet on the case, but the China Daily said yesterday that news of the US program “is certain to stain Washington’s overseas image and test developing Sino-US ties.”
“How the case is handled could pose a challenge to the burgeoning goodwill between Beijing and Washington, given that Snowden is in Chinese territory and the Sino-US relationship is constantly soured on cybersecurity,” the state-owned newspaper said.
While some hail Snowden as a whistle-blower who carried out an act of civil disobedience to expose US government overreach, others say he is a traitor.
“How do we get from reasonable grounds ... to all phone records, all the time, all locations?” asked Senator Jeff Merkley, a supporter of limiting government surveillance powers.
Holding up his own phone, he asked Alexander: “What authority gave you the grounds for acquiring my cellphone data?”
The general repeated the administration’s defense that, while the NSA did gather large quantities of telephone metadata, it could not mine the logs to target a specific user without authorization from a secret court.
“We do not see a tradeoff between security and liberty,” he said, insisting that the NSA is “deeply committed to compliance with the law and the protection of privacy rights.”