Leaks from Edward Snowden focus attention on NSA director Keith Alexander

The secret documents describing U.S. surveillance operations that Edward Snowden gave to journalists have focused new attention on the National Security Agency and its director, Gen. Keith Alexander. Alexander has worked tirelessly since taking charge of the agency in 2005 to expand its capabilities:

In his eight years at the helm of the country’s electronic surveillance agency, Alexander, 61, has quietly presided over a revolution in the government’s ability to scoop up information in the name of national security. And, as he did in Iraq, Alexander has pushed hard for everything he can get: tools, resources and the legal authority to collect and store vast quantities of raw information on American and foreign communications.

His successes have won accolades from political leaders of both parties as well as from counterterrorism and intelligence professionals who say the NSA chief’s efforts have helped foil dozens of terrorist attacks. His approach also has drawn attack from civil rights groups and a bipartisan group of lawmakers. One Democrat who confronted Alexander at a congressional hearing last month accused the NSA of crossing a line by collecting the cellphone records of millions of Americans.

“What authorization gave you the grounds for acquiring my cellphone data?” demanded Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), waving his mobile phone at the four-star general. . .

As portrayed by supporters, Alexander is animated by a spymaster’s awareness of serious, overlapping threats arrayed against the United States. They include foreign and homegrown terrorists. They also include a host of adversaries who are constantly probing the country’s cyberdefenses, looking for opportunities to steal secrets or unleash mayhem by shutting down critical infrastructure. Like many national security officials of his generation, Alexander’s sensibilities were shaped by a series of painful intelligence lapses leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks.

To some of Alexander’s most vociferous critics, Snowden’s disclosures confirm their image of an agency and a director so enamored of technological prowess that they have sacrificed privacy rights.

“He is absolutely obsessed and completely driven to take it all, whenever possible,” said Thomas Drake, a former NSA official and whistleblower. The continuation of Alexander’s policies, Drake said, would result in the “complete evisceration of our civil liberties.”

Alexander frequently points out that collection programs are subject to oversight by Congress as well as the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, although the proceedings of both bodies are shrouded in secrecy. But even his defenders say Alexander’s aggressiveness has sometimes taken him to the outer edge of his legal authority.

Some in Congress complain that Alexander’s NSA is sometimes slow to inform the oversight committees of problems, particularly when the agency’s eavesdroppers inadvertently pick up communications that fall outside the NSA’s legal mandates. Others are uncomfortable with the extraordinarily broad powers vested in the NSA chief. In 2010, he became the first head of U.S. Cyber Command, set up to defend Defense Department networks against hackers and, when authorized, conduct attacks on adversaries. Pentagon officials and Alexander say the command’s mission is also to defend the nation against cyberattacks.

“He is the only man in the land that can promote a problem by virtue of his intelligence hat and then promote a solution by virtue of his military hat,” said one former Pentagon official, voicing a concern that the lines governing the two authorities are not clearly demarcated and that Alexander can evade effective public oversight as a result.

Ellen Nakashima and Joby Warrick

Snowden, a former contractor at the NSA, said Friday he plans to apply for asylum in Russia and hopes eventually to travel to Latin America. He is wanted in the United States on criminal charges after he copied material from NSA databases:

Glenn Greenwald, a columnist with The Guardian newspaper who first reported on the intelligence leaks, told The Associated Press that disclosure of the information in the documents “would allow somebody who read them to know exactly how the NSA does what it does, which would in turn allow them to evade that surveillance or replicate it.”

He said the “literally thousands of documents” taken by Snowden constitute “basically the instruction manual for how the NSA is built.”

“In order to take documents with him that proved that what he was saying was true he had to take ones that included very sensitive, detailed blueprints of how the NSA does what they do,” the journalist said Sunday in a Rio de Janeiro hotel room. He said the interview was taking place about four hours after his last interaction with Snowden.

Greenwald said he believes the disclosure of the information in the documents would not prove harmful to Americans or their national security, but that Snowden has insisted they not be made public.

“I think it would be harmful to the U.S. government, as they perceive their own interests, if the details of those programs were revealed,” he said.

He has previously said the documents have been encrypted to help ensure their safekeeping.

Associated Press

Journalist Glenn Greenwald says NSA leaker Edward Snowden has documents that detail what the NSA does and how it works. (Associated Press)

Journalist Sheila Weller attacks Greenwald for his relationship with Snowden:

Most disconcertingly, Snowden’s assertions – especially those made through his sponsor/mouthpiece, “journalist” Glenn Greenwald — seem more like threats, even blackmail, than exhortations to the “conversation” about government overreach that he claims to want to start.

“Snowden has enough information to cause harm to the U.S. government in a single minute than any other person has ever had. The U.S. government should be on its knees every day begging that nothing happens to Snowden, because if something does happen to him, all the information will be revealed and it could be its worse nightmare,” Greenwald said the other day, outdoing even his own previous arrogant rhetoric.

Sheila Weller

Snowden’s personal situation has been more widely covered than the surveillance programs themselves. Not only are the programs complex, but a comprehensive, accurate description of them remains unavailable:

Amid the cascading disclosures about National Security Agency surveillance programs, the top lawyer in the U.S. intelligence community opened his remarks at a rare public appearance last week with a lament about how much of the information being spilled was wrong.

“A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth gets its boots on,” said Robert Litt, citing a line often attributed to Mark Twain. “Unfortunately, there’s been a lot of misinformation that’s come out about these programs.”

The remark by Litt, general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, was aimed at news organizations. But details that have emerged from the exposure of hundreds of pages of previously classified NSA documents indicate that public assertions about these programs by senior U.S. officials have also often been misleading, erroneous or simply false. . .

A remark by Litt’s boss, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr., has perhaps drawn the most attention. Asked during a congressional hearing in March whether the NSA collected data on millions of Americans, Clapper replied, “No, sir.”

U.S. officials have cited a variety of factors to explain the discrepancies, including the challenge of speaking publicly and definitively about programs that remain classified and involve procedures and technical systems that are highly complex. . .

Beyond inadvertent missteps, however, an examination of public statements over a period of years suggests that officials have often relied on legalistic parsing and carefully hedged characterizations in discussing the NSA’s collection of communications.

Obama’s assurances have hinged, for example, on a term — targeting — that has a specific meaning for U.S. spy agencies that would elude most ordinary citizens.

“What I can say unequivocally is that if you are a U.S. person, the NSA cannot listen to your telephone calls and the NSA cannot target your e-mails,” Obama said in his June 17 interview on PBS’s “Charlie Rose Show.”

But even if it is not allowed to target U.S. citizens, the NSA has significant latitude to collect and keep the contents of e-mails and other communications of U.S. citizens that are swept up as part of the agency’s court-approved monitoring of a target overseas.

The law allows the NSA to examine such messages and share them with other agencies if it determines that the information contained is evidence of a crime, conveys a serious threat or is necessary to understand foreign intelligence.

Greg Miller

For past coverage of Snowden, continue reading here.

Max Ehrenfreund is a blogger on the Financial desk and writes for Know More and Wonkblog.
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