Gen. Keith Alexander, chief of both the National Security Agency and the U.S. Cyber Command, is testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday. Though the hearing is ostensibly about cybersecurity and workforce training, it is the first time an official from the super-secret agency has been scheduled to appear before a congressional committee since news broke of the NSA's sweeping Internet surveillance program. Several members of Congress have called for hearings on the constitutionality of the program, so members of the committee were expected to use the hearing to pose questions to Alexander about the surveillance.
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After two and a half hours filled mostly by discussion of the Obama administration's sweeping surveillance efforts, Sen. Mikulski has adjourned the public portion of the hearing, and moved the remainder of it into a closed setting.
The hearing, Mikulski remarked, "hasn't been quite originally the way we thought, but it has been a good hearing." The original purpose of it was to discuss cybersecurity, but it was quickly dominated by the recent revelations about the NSA's phone and Internet surveillance efforts.
In closing, Mikulski said the debate about the balance between privacy and security is one well worth having.
"I think we ought to have that debate. I think we ought to have that discussion," she said.
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said he thinks the newly elevated debate about the balance between security and privacy is a "positive" development.
"Hopefully we will secure both our security and our freedoms when this is done," Tester said.
Over a year ago, the Obama administration convinced the European Union to drop a measure from its privacy legislation that would have blocked the NSA from collecting Internet and phone data of European citizens under the PRISM program, according to the Financial Times.
The EU was persuaded to drop the clause because of difficulties with enforcement and because they worried this could complicate a trade deal with the United States.
In the middle of the hearing, Sen. Mikulski took a moment to respond to a tweet from Buzzfeed reporter Rosie Gray, who had commented seven minutes earlier that the Appropriations Committee chair was trying to prevent senators from asking Alexander about data mining efforts.
".@SenatorBarb is trying hard to keep the other senators from asking Gen. Alexander anymore about data mining programs," Gray tweeted.
.@senatorbarb is trying hard to keep the other senators from asking Gen. Alexander anymore about data mining programs
— Rosie Gray (@RosieGray) June 12, 2013
"I want to say to Rosie there is not attempt here to muzzle any senator from any line of questions," Mikulski said.
The hearing was designed to discuss cybersecurity. But the majority of it has involved the NSA's recently revealed Internet and phone surveillance activities.
As we noted earlier, Mikulski said: “What we are now moving into is a domain that is not [within] the parameters of this hearing." But, the Democrat added, she would not prevent any senator from asking the questions they want to ask.
Mikulski got some GOP backup from Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana, who said the committee chair had been "extremely tolerant" of senators' off-topic questions.
Rep. Peter King (R-NY), in an interview with Fox News, called for journalists who report on classified programs to be prosecuted. He pointed specifically to Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian reporter who broke the story of NSA surveillance last week.
King said, "When you have someone who's disclosed secrets like this and threatens to release more, then...legal action should be taken against him. This is a very unusual case with life and death implications for Americans."
Gen. Alexander said flatly that admitted leaker Edward Snowden's claim in an interview that the NSA could tap into virtually all Americans' phone calls and e-mails was false.
"I know of no way to do that," he said.
With the discussion fixed on NSA surveillance, Sen. Mikulski tried to steer the hearing back to its original purpose: cybersecurity.
"What we are now moving into is a domain that is not [within] the parameters of this hearing," Mikulski said.
But, the senator added, she would not prevent any senator from asking the questions they want to ask.
And right now, all the questions are about the NSA surveillance efforts that were revealed last week.
Alexander said he has "grave concerns" over the level of access that Edward Snowden had to classified information about the NSA's surveillance efforts. Snowden is the man who admitted to leaking information about the agency's sweeping Internet and phone surveillance.
"I have grave concerns over that -- the access that he had and the process," Alexander said.
Alexander said Snowden appeared to have "great skills" in the area of IT and networking. Officials are looking into how Snowden attained the access he did, Alexander added.
A few weeks ago, at a Reuters summit on cybersecurity, Gen. Keith Alexander said, "The great irony is we're the only ones not spying on the American people."
At the summit, he also addressed controversies surrounding the NSA's $1.2 billion data center in Utah, which raised concerns about domestic government surveillance. Reuters reported that Alexander dismissed these claims as being false "the allegations are absolute baloney."
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) raised concerns about Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which is the provision of the Patriot Act under which the government is authorized to obtain business records that are relevant to terrorism investigations.
Read more about Section 215:
The Patriot Act provision that allowed the NSA to collect phone records has helped thwart "dozens" of terror events, Alexander said.
In testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Alexander cited the cases of Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan American who guilty to planning suicide attacks in New York, and Pakistani American David Headley, who conducted surveillance in support of the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India that killed more than 160 people. In both instances, he said, the NSA program helped unravel the plot.
He said it was his intent that records showing the secret surveillance program was critical to disrupting dozens of such plots will be made public within a week.
The order that allowed for the NSA collection of phone records of millions of Americans was based on Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allows law enforcement to obtain a wide variety of “business records,” including calling records.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who questioned Alexander about the section, wanted specific figures about what attacks had been averted.
Not yet, responded Alexander. But he vowed to have them soon.
"I don't have those figures today," he said. "Over the next week it will be our intent to get those figures out."
Edward Snowden, in an interview with the South China Morning Post, said the NSA has engaged in more than 60,000 hacking operations worldwide, with hundreds aimed at Chinese targets.
"We hack network backbones -- like huge Internet routers, basically -- that give us access to communications of hundreds of thousands of computers without having to hack every single one," he explained.
Sen. Mikulski said that an additional classified section of the hearing would come later in the afternoon.
And with the opening statements complete, it's on to the the question-and-answer portion of the hearing. It's worth noting at the outset that Senate Q-and-A sessions don't tend to be as contentious as those that take place in the House.
In the text of a prepared statement by NSA head Gen. Keith Alexander, he says, "We do not see a tradeoff between security and liberty. It is not a choice, and we can and must do both simultaneously."
The trade-off between security and privacy has been at the center of the debate over the Obama administration's surveillance efforts. President Obama said last week that "you can't have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience."
Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) said at the outset of the hearing that the recent revelations about the Obama administration's phone and Internet surveillance methods should be discussed -- just not at today's hearing.
"That's not today," Mikulski said. "That's for another day."
Mikulski said she pledged to ranking Republican Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) "that we would have a full committee hearing on that particular program," but that today's hearing would focus on strictly on cybersecurity. She added that after Sen. Dianne Feinstein's hearing on Thursday, if Shelby still recommends an Appropriations Committee hearing on the matter, she will be "happy to comply."
In addition to NSA head Gen. Keith Alexander, three other officials are slated to testify this afternoon:
* Acting Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Rand Beers
* National Institute of Standards and Technology Director Patrick Gallagher
* FBI Executive Assistant Director of Criminal, Cyber, Response, and Services Branch Richard McFeely
Senate Appropriations Chair Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) said she has two goals for the hearing: "Protect the American people from cyber threats by working across government" and to "examine how agencies will use cyber security funding in the budget."
Of course, the elephant in the room is the recently revealed National Security Agency surveillance efforts. Mikulski didn't specifically mention the revelations in her introductory remarks. But given the attention the news has been receiving the last few days, it would be surprising if it didn't come up this afternoon.
Before the hearing begins, a bit of background on National Security Agency head Gen. Keith Alexander. He became head of the agency in 2005, making him the longest-serving director ever. He also became the first commander of U.S. Cyber Command, when it launched in 2010.
The Post's Ellen Nakashima took a lengthy look at Alexander in 2010, ahead of his confirmation as head of U.S. Cyber Command. Click here to read more about the man who has been a forceful, if controversial, advocate for the power to counteract cybersecurity threats.