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In speech to telecom industry, NSA’s Alexander criticizes coverage of surveillance

National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander. In a speech to the telecom industry, he denounced what he called media mischaracterization of the NSA’s surveillance programs. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Gen. Keith Alexander, head of the National Security Agency and the military’s Cyber Command, on Wednesday asked the telecommunications industry to help set the record straight on what he believes is a media mischaracterization of government surveillance programs.

Alexander said that the programs, first revealed in reports from The Washington Post and The Guardian, have strict oversight and are vital to preventing future terrorist attacks. In a speech at the Telecommunciations Industry Association conference, Alexander said that the revelations about surveillance programs run by the NSA have badly hurt the foundation of trust that the agency needs to do its work, and provided valuable information about the country’s security programs to the country's enemies.

Alexander said that he agreed with public statements from the director general of of Britain’s Security Service, Andrew Parker, who said that the leaks were a “gift” for terrorists, according to reporting from The Guardian.

“I think Andrew Parker’s message is right,” Alexander said, calling media leaks “irresponsible” and saying that the leaks will cause “irreversible damage to our nation.”

He added that the leaks, have “impacted that foundation of trust that industry has with NSA, and that the NSA has with the American people.”

However, he added, given that the leaks have already happened, there are things “we should make available to the public so they know we’re doing the right thing.”

Alexander added that he has been particularly troubled by reporting that he said describes the extremes of what the government could do with data rather than focusing on how the government is using data.

“We need to put the facts on the table, we need the American people to understand the facts, and it’s got to start with what we’re actually doing, not what we could be doing with the data,” he said.

He encouraged people in the telecommunications industry to closely read court filings and reach their own conclusions about what the government is doing, from a technical standpoint.

Alexander also said that he worries media reports revealing these programs will hamper a push for more information sharing between the public and private sectors, which he said is one of the most important tools in the cybersecurity arsenal.

Government, industry and U.S. allies, he said, must be able to act together as a team, but may be hampered by the level of distrust.

“We’re stuck,” he said. “We can’t do this mission without your help... to inform the American people and Congress about what we’re doing.”

Alexander also briefly addressed the government shutdown, saying that while is staff has been deemed essential, the situation “hurts morale,” particularly given the highly qualified staff — PhDs, computer scientists and mathematicians — who have chosen to work for the public sector.

“The way we’re treating them with this furlough is flat wrong,” he said.

Follow The Post’s new tech blog, The Switch, where technology and policy connect.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.



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