July 18th, 2013
10:59 PM ET

NSA chief strongly defends govt. surveillance programs, but suggests he's open to changes

By Dan Merica and Elise Labott

Editor's note: This is one in a series of stories and opinion pieces surrounding the Aspen Security Forum currently taking place in Aspen, Colorado. Security Clearance is a media sponsor of the event, which is taking place from July 17 to 20 in Aspen, Colorado.

The director of the National Security Agency on Thursday offered a full-throated defense of a domestic monitoring program that has been at the center of government leaks, while also tacitly supporting an idea to dramatically change the controversial snooping.

In a public interview at the Aspen Security Forum, NSA Director Keith Alexander addressed the leaks carried out by Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked classified documents to the media.

At the heart of the Snowden leaks is a program that collects information about all calls in the United States. The information collected, called metadata, includes duration, time of the call and the numbers that are party to the call, all of which are stored in a government database.

But what if private phone companies - instead of the government - ran the database?

"You could technically do that," Alexander said. "Now, it creates some operational problems that we would have to work our way through … But that may be the best solution."

The program, as hypothetically proposed by NBC's Pete Williams - the moderator of the session - would have the phone companies keeping the information, not the NSA.

One problem, Alexander said, is that you would "have to change the legislation to require them to keep it and then have them keep it."

Despite the possible problem, Alexander said, "I think it is something we should consider. I am not against it."

As for Snowden, who is now a man without a country in Moscow's international airport after the United States revoked his passport, Alexander said the government now knows how much top secret information the former contractor pulled from NSA computers and, in response, the agency is "taking actions to fix" security issues.

In particular, Alexander said, the government is limiting the number of employees who can transfer files to removable drives and changing security protocols at NSA offices.

Those leaks, Alexander said, have made the intelligence communities’ job “harder."  In particular, the NSA chief said the U.S. has "concrete proof" that terrorists are making changes due to the disclosures.

Alexander defended the government surveillance programs, which also includes a program to collect data about overseas Internet communications, as necessary to prevent major terrorist attacks.

"The purpose of these programs and the reason we use secrecy is not to hide it from the American people, not to hide it from you," Alexander told the audience. Instead, he said the programs are kept secret because of "those who walk among you who are trying to kill you."

Defending the telephone metadata program as one that has "more oversight" than any other program that he knew of, Alexander said the monitoring program was in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks and the countries demand to not let that happen again.

"We came together as a country and said never again," he said. "We don't want another 9/11."

Details about the monitoring programs at the NSA were first leaked to the Guardian newspaper and to the Washington Post. Since then, the German magazine Der Spiegel was also shown information obtained by Snowden.

The leaks have become an international problem for the Obama administration, which has seen leaders around the world - including allies in Europe - speak out publically about programs that have even monitored their offices.

Much of the public outcry has focused on the idea that the government could possibly be listening to individual calls without a warrant. Alexander admitted that the NSA and administration could be doing a better job of informing "the American people on what these programs do."

As for monitoring the content of individual phone calls, Alexander said, "You couldn't sit at my desk at NSA and do that. You couldn't possibly do that."

soundoff (73 Responses)
  1. gnl

    Our government believes there are "trade-offs" in our liberty that we should make for a safe country.

    I do not buy into this. If the government is collecting as much data as possible on ALL Americans (let's get real – this is their ultimate goal), and we are being told this compromise is necessary, then we do NOT have liberty.

    Not only that, but we are told it is all part of the "war on terrorism", which is a war that WILL NEVER END. And obviously, as this "war" continues, more data will be collected, bigger data storage centers will be built, and the means by which it is collecting will strengthen.

    Already under section 215 of the Patriot Act, the government can "authorize" an investigation through this data without any connection to that person being a terrorist or spy - all they need is to show the information is "relevant".

    Now... put that together with a program like PRISM and you have a very scary world in which ANYONE can be subject to invasions of privacy.

    Now... put that together with the US Drone program, which also allows attacks on US soil and you have the makings of a very scary future police state. Indeed, we already live in a police state... but things will inevitably get worse if nothing is done.

    July 21, 2013 at 11:15 am | Reply
  2. H. B.

    If Snowden was truly a patriot, he wouldn't have done things the way he did. If he was truly outraged by the program, he could have "leaked" it right in the States. It would require him to "man up" to what he did, and to face the consequences. Revealing the content of secret data (especially to hostile nations) is NOT the way to accomplish the goal he claimed to have.

    Sneaking away to nations that are staunchly anti-American speaks strongly to his character, too. How could he be helping US by revealing top secret material to hostile nations? No patriot would do that, but a traitor would.

    He doesn't fit the legal definition of traitor, because we're not at war with any of those nations. But his actions WERE traitorous, notwithstanding.

    You can't "blow the whistle" on a program that has been publicly known – at least in its basics – for years, nor on a program that has been thoroughly vetted, repeatedly, (secret aspects included) and approved by all three branches of government.

    There was no whistle to blow. He's just a leaker, capitalizing on the fact that he had the ability to do it. He STOLE government computers – a felony. He violated a solemn oath to keep secret the secret stuff he was working on – and he admitted he had intended to violate that oath before he ever took it. That is also a felony.

    He didn't have to leak all the intimate details of the program; he only needed to announce the nature of them, and how he felt about them. And all right within the U.S.A. He need NOT have revealed the data itself to anybody, least of all hostile states.

    He GAVE that secret data to countries that do NOT like America and would gleefully cause us harm. How was he protecting my rights and yours, in doing that?

    He may have thought he could dole out only what he wanted these other nations to know, but he had a mountain of stuff in addition. Then he sashayed into first China and then Russia, in possession of top secret American data. Do you think China and Russia would NOT get their hands on the whole thing? With or without his permission?

    And after they squeezed out of him everything he had, he then became of no use to them, and they just wanted him GONE.

    Russia doesn't want him leaking any other stuff. They say it's protecting their friendly ties with the U.S. More likely, there's stuff in the data that makes Putin look like a worm.

    Moreover, it's likely that much of the data he had was removed by those countries, and is no longer in his possession to give to the Latin countries he's eyeballing as refuges. But those hostile Latin nations are rubbing their hands together, even to get their hands on whatever crumbs are left after Russia and China removed much of it.

    He stole. He committed perjury. He gave secret information to hostile nations. There may be a profit motive involved here, too. But it's unlikely anyone who said he'd be paid for what he did will want to pay him now. Because it didn't – quite – turn out the way his buyers had hoped. Even if he makes it to Latin America, he's likely to have to spend his remaining days in poverty, in a nation that does NOT respect either his privacy or his rights. That, in itself, might be at least some punishment for betraying his country.

    And calls himself a patriot? He's no countryman of mine.

    July 19, 2013 at 3:07 pm | Reply
    • bbcblogger

      and how do you suggest he would have done it. Because there are three other whistleblowers who tried to do it differently and are now in jail.

      July 19, 2013 at 5:40 pm | Reply
      • The Jay Man

        Thank you for pointing this out. I only had to read this guy's first two sentences to determine he is uninformed, clueless or a government stooge and that I need not waste anytime reading further.

        It is a fact others have tried blowing the whistle from the states and it did not end well for them.

        July 22, 2013 at 12:37 am |
    • bbcblogger

      ... and by the way. There is no evidence that he gave any information to China or Russia. you've been reading to much propaganda,

      July 19, 2013 at 5:41 pm | Reply
  3. markvanallen

    “Why of course the people don’t want war… That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”
    --Hermann Goering, Nazi officer

    July 19, 2013 at 2:49 pm | Reply
  4. markvanallen

    A NEW SCHOOL OF THOUGHT

    Freedom From Surveillance Is Slavery!

    War Against Terrorism Is Peace!

    Ignorance Of The Methodology Is Strength!

    July 19, 2013 at 2:33 pm | Reply
    • Rick

      Hear hear. I could add much more but hopefully (though doubtfully) people will get your message.

      July 19, 2013 at 2:39 pm | Reply
  5. Concerned citizen

    I think most people that have negative opinions about NSA do not have the smallest clue of how it is to live in a country where you do not have ANY freedom at all..You peple are so lucky to be in a country as wonderfiull as America, I live over seas and it is a nightmare here..the government controls what you say and when you say it. Just a little food for thought!!

    July 19, 2013 at 1:29 pm | Reply
    • mxmxmxmxm

      ur government is putting camera in ur washroom also ,be carefull wen naked :)

      July 19, 2013 at 2:18 pm | Reply
    • dan

      what a lousy naive comment. So because you live in a medieval "god knows where country", you try to convince others that there is worst places to be. You are being so "functional" to NSA.

      July 19, 2013 at 2:23 pm | Reply
      • mxmxmxmxm

        truth is always bitter, usa may b best place to live , in name sake of national security they can abduct u kill u what ever they can do to u , no one will know so keep quiet and cry n still ask for 911. osama deadth prove of video, iraq wmd etc ,

        July 19, 2013 at 2:27 pm |
    • Raven

      And we don't want to become like the country you live in.

      July 19, 2013 at 2:27 pm | Reply
      • mxmxmxmxm

        more bitter hahahahhaha....... dont live but open ur eyes or atleast voice for injustice usa is doing and making usa a universal enemies infront of all world

        July 19, 2013 at 2:30 pm |
      • mxmxmxmxm

        by da way i am from china ... friendly country universal to allll

        July 19, 2013 at 2:31 pm |
  6. Flynn

    '... the programs are kept secret because of "those who walk among you who are trying to kill you.' People should allow the NSA, CIA and whichever agency to spy on citizens and foreigners and allies because those programs will save lives?
    Was this guy talking to a bunch of kids?

    July 19, 2013 at 1:03 pm | Reply
    • mxmxmxmxm

      hahahahhaa ....all terrorist attacks is not to be proved by outsider its a inside job man , in whicj world u r living, may b ur government is putting camera in ur washroom also ,be carefull wen naked :)

      July 19, 2013 at 2:19 pm | Reply
      • Flynn

        Looks like you are one of the NSA supporters who enjoys being spied on. Viva America!

        July 20, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
  7. Mathis

    You already know who the people are that are trying to do the terrorist actions. Storing the whole countries communication information is pointless and Machiavellian. Why don't these agencies work on collaborating together more and investigating using more direct means? They are just lazy and expose our country to more corruption. Oh yea, and if you are reading this NSA. Screw you!

    July 19, 2013 at 12:53 pm | Reply
  8. mike

    Alexander admitted that the NSA and administration could be doing a better job of informing "the American people on what these programs do." HOW ABOUT INFORMING US TO BEGIN WITH THAT THIS WAS GOING ON. You cant or wont site a single example of anything this monitoring has prevented. Snowden needs to release all the information he has. Since the govt is not going to be transparent ( wonder who told that LIE about 6 years ago) then he needs to do it for them. If they are doing nothing wrong, they have nothing to hide.

    July 19, 2013 at 12:05 pm | Reply
  9. Wayne Montgomery

    WHERE'S THE PEOPLE'S REPRESENTATION WHEN THE POLITICANS WANT TO CONTINUE NSA,PRISM and FISC WHILE REDEFINING WORDS SO IT FITS OUR MAFIA GOV'T NEEDS.

    July 19, 2013 at 11:13 am | Reply
  10. John McKane

    What would one expect this clown Keith Alexander to say? Of course he's going to defend the spying on American civilians as well as our crony "allies" in Europe. This just goes on and on with no end in sight!

    July 19, 2013 at 8:03 am | Reply
  11. Steve

    Can't sit at his desk at NSA and do that. Double talk.
    Go down the hall into a ops room and you can do it.

    July 19, 2013 at 7:45 am | Reply
  12. M.A.P.

    "those who walk among you who are trying to kill you." – what an absolutely ridiculous fear mongering statement to make. How many Americans have been killed in terrorist attacks in the last few years? Compare the number to death from falling off ladders. More people died from falling off ladders.

    Sure, terrorism is still somewhat of a threat. But this spying goes far too far and is an overreaction from the government. We have no privacy and no control over our data. This world is not truly free – the all seeing eye of the US government sees and controls all.

    July 19, 2013 at 7:38 am | Reply
    • John McKane

      Well said, M.A.P. Point well taken. Thank you.

      July 19, 2013 at 8:05 am | Reply
    • tomczerniawski

      Number of deaths from biggest terror attack on US soil: 2,996
      Number of deaths from terrorism on US soil last year: 5
      Number of deaths annually from average US murder rate: 10,000-15,000
      Number of deaths annually from US car accidents: 30,000-40,000
      Number of deaths annually from heart disease: 600,000

      Priorities.

      July 19, 2013 at 10:40 am | Reply
      • John McKane

        Well put, tomczerniawski. Quite true indeed.

        July 19, 2013 at 2:19 pm |
  13. aurelius

    The fact that Snowden never spoke against the abuse of power of Putin, his new protector, goes a long way to explain who he is. Shame on those who wish to deify that callous snitch.

    July 19, 2013 at 7:15 am | Reply
    • Wayne Montgomery

      I WISH I KNEW HOW TO SHOW A THUMBS DOWN ON UR COMMENT BUT YOU CERTA|INLY HAVE A RIGHT TO SAY SO NO MATTER HOW IDIOTIC IT IS. I'M NEW TO CNN BUT ON YAHOO THE THUMBS UP TO SOMETHING LIKE YOU SAID WOULD BE 300 THUMBS DOWN TO 25 THUMBS DOWN SHOWING IT'S HARDLY ANY WHO LIKE BEING SPIED ON..I SAY CLOSE DOWN THE NSA AND GET SNOWDEN HOME FOR PRESIDENT IN 2016.

      July 19, 2013 at 11:09 am | Reply
      • mxmxmxmxm

        u r a man ,,,, ur government is making in a name sake of national security doing all illegal work and killing innocent peoples around the world ,so reaction is infront of u, all world is against usa now giving snowden assyllum its a way of cold war, america is gone down soo much .....

        July 19, 2013 at 2:23 pm |
    • Truth

      Snowden is trying to defend your right to make this statement. Enjoy it while it lasts, because that right is quickly evaporating. Remember, everything you say or do on the Internet is now recorded, and can be used against you at some future date. All it takes is for the political wind to change, and you are the traitor.

      July 19, 2013 at 1:22 pm | Reply
      • mxmxmxmxm

        sure y not , so this means ur government is scaring u till death n believe what they will show in paid media hahahahahhaa

        July 19, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
    • Rick

      Probably because he didn't have proof of that, but he DID have proof against the US government, which is why he chose to speak against it.

      July 19, 2013 at 2:44 pm | Reply
  14. KEVIN

    "Those who walk among you who are trying to kill you" This guys Psychiatrist needs to increase his medications. Alexander should just retire with dignity.

    July 19, 2013 at 7:02 am | Reply
  15. p das

    Here is my point of view from the religious point of view. No one can hide from anything . The sun god, the air god , the super soul within us , is witnessing everythig we do. There is no secret.we may think , we are getting way with certain lifes issues. Nothing is ketp secret in the universal eye.It is all recorded .One thing if for sure, we must remail loyal to whatever we do.

    July 19, 2013 at 6:48 am | Reply
  16. Propaganda

    Alexander can spew propaganda all day, but really ... telling us that PRISM keeps us safe and protects us from another 9/11 .. if that was so .. why did we than have a Boston Bombing attack ? These were guys, in sight of the NSA, they were prewarned by the Russians. Still the attack did happen. Sure they may have used PRISM to quickly get to those guys, but still did not prevent citizens from coming in harms way. So in the end, it is a tool to get a hold of suspects quicker, but no, it cannot prevent another 9/11 .. that has already been proven.

    July 19, 2013 at 5:55 am | Reply
    • theSwede

      Every now and then the police fails to catch a murderer. Every now and then a doctor fails to save a patient. But never are any voices raised to shut down the police or hospitals. 100% success is a pipe dream but not trying to do anything is assurance of 100% failure.

      July 19, 2013 at 7:21 am | Reply
      • Rick

        And every now and then the government sow seeds of fear to keep the cowering sheep in line who are thereafter willing to give up their rights in the face of a bogeyman.

        July 19, 2013 at 2:46 pm |
  17. Steve1949

    This is just another attempt by the NSA to justify their spying on everyone and of course to make Snowden look like he has helped the terrorists out with the information he leaked. The only problem with this is that the terrorists are not as dumb as everyone thinks. They were probably already aware of what the U.S. government was doing to try to gain intelligence on them. What Snowden leaked, I seriously doubt did any serious damage nor put any Americans lives in any more danger that they were in before the leaks. As it is the NSA has been a dollar short and a day late on their intelligence gathering.

    July 19, 2013 at 5:36 am | Reply
  18. loya

    I do not understand this muti B$$$ Agency....crying like a baby to draw attention at a lost toy...We have enough Data in CIA and FBI....and should dispense with NSA as a failed Circus.

    July 19, 2013 at 5:27 am | Reply
  19. Powder

    taliban,al-qaeda & other terrorist organisations have changed tactics because of Snowden and my wish is for those who say Snowden did the right thing to be the first to taste the terrorists strike if they manage to out-manuvoure the NSA since 9/11!
    I thought there was a forum in the USA that Snowden could have used to voice such a strong opinion of his without endangering his life and that of other citizens!
    Do some Americans know that the advesaries the NSA was tracking know nothing about individual freedoms?

    July 19, 2013 at 5:05 am | Reply
    • Steve1949

      If you believe all the BS the NSA is feeding you, fine. Since I'm not as paranoid as you I will accept your offer of tasting the terrorist strike before you. Does that make you feel better?

      July 19, 2013 at 5:26 am | Reply
    • Truth

      It's not the terrorists that hate your freedoms. It's the government.

      July 19, 2013 at 7:00 am | Reply
      • mxmxmxmxm

        u r right so terrorism has one religion that is dollarsssssssss

        July 19, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
    • mxmxmxmxm

      u people is fooled by ur own government , 911 al qaeda bla bla bla ,, its a inside job man ,wake up before ur toilet washroom will get a goverment survelliance camera hahahahahahaha

      July 19, 2013 at 2:24 pm | Reply
    • mxmxmxmxm

      hahahahhaa like u knew all these organizations :) ,, all are undercover working for usa , terrorism has one language and religion that is dollarssssssss

      July 19, 2013 at 2:28 pm | Reply
  20. moveon

    if snowden did not exposed it, what do you think will happen?? if we can trust this goverment then there is NO problem.
    "snowden is not a spy and not a traitor" and we all know that. 'Idealism' thats why he dosnt have a country right now

    July 19, 2013 at 4:19 am | Reply
  21. AM

    "Those leaks, Alexander said, have made the intelligence communities’ job “harder." In particular, the NSA chief said the U.S. has "concrete proof" that terrorists are making changes due to the disclosures." How can you trust what Alexander is saying? Sure he would not say anything different.

    July 19, 2013 at 4:18 am | Reply
  22. Windtalkers

    Well I read an article that St. Louis want to use drones for the police department and now smart license plates. I'm all for security but things are starting to border the ridiculous. They will need rules in place for the information stored , how its used , deleting info in a time frame, and a new department to police the people using this info.

    July 19, 2013 at 4:15 am | Reply
    • VoiceOver

      Well, you obviously need drones as the police will not be able to stop terrorists, I mean, if you need 300 bullits to catch one armed and one unarmed bomber, a man behind a computer screen with a joystick will do a much better job.

      July 19, 2013 at 8:08 am | Reply
  23. GMR

    Open to change? Here's an idea. Stop spying on the American people. Collecting data that can stretch from the earth to the moon 16 million times (if converted to physical files) is reprehensible. Get probable cause and a court order before cyber stalking citizens. All the security in the world is useless if it makes life in America a nightmare.

    July 19, 2013 at 4:03 am | Reply
  24. aurelius

    bbb

    July 19, 2013 at 3:28 am | Reply
  25. 1ring2bringthemall

    Humbly I offer my prayer:
    Our NSA in Crypto City /
    hallowed be your game /
    Your brave new world come /
    Your surveillance state be done /
    on earth as it is in heaven /
    if you give us our daily security /
    we will forgive you this tyranny /
    and don`t forgive the enemy of the state Snowden /
    for leading us into temptations /
    but deliver us from his terrorization /
    yours is the perfect security, the Orwellian society with no bother about privacy – forever /
    Amen /

    July 19, 2013 at 3:22 am | Reply
    • markvanallen

      While Seeing All Evil and Hearing All Evil, in eternal submission to omnipotent and omniscient deity, this devout devotee uncovered the most vile and reprehensible blasphemer, heretic and infidel (1ring2bringthemall), in a post on CNN:

      Humbly I offer my prayer:Our NSA in Crypto City /

      hallowed be your game /

      Your brave new world come /

      Your surveillance state be done /

      on earth as it is in heaven /

      if you give us our daily security /

      we will forgive you this tyranny /

      and don`t forgive the enemy of the state Snowden /

      for leading us into temptations /

      but deliver us from his terrorization /

      yours is the perfect security, the Orwellian society with no bother about privacy – forever /

      Amen /

      May deity have mercy upon this soul's apostasy!

      See All Evil, Hear All Evil, Report All Evil! Factum Est!

      July 20, 2013 at 9:09 am | Reply
  26. TooObvious

    "NSA chief strongly defends govt. surveillance programs" ... this is of course obvious. I cannot think he will say otherwise. Will the head of Gestapo not defend their method of extracting information... seriously it is like saying that the sky is blue and the grass is green.

    July 19, 2013 at 3:10 am | Reply
  27. Freddie Nerk

    This just confirms that Snowden is a spy and traitor. He belongs in prison.

    July 19, 2013 at 2:58 am | Reply
    • VoiceOver

      It confirms the NSA considers Snowden a spy and a traitor, which of course is a totally unexpected opinion coming from the very organisation he exposed.

      July 19, 2013 at 8:11 am | Reply
    • Truth

      Here are the names of some other famous traitors from history:
      George Read, Ceasar Rodney, Thomas McKean, George Clymer, Robert Morris, Benjamin Rush, James Smith, George Taylor, Benjamin Franklin, John Morton, George Ross...

      July 19, 2013 at 1:34 pm | Reply
      • Wayne Montgomery

        You have a rght to YOUR opinion but over 60% of the people disagree with You...Unfortunately U have representation and the 60% don't...That puts you in the classification with UR crooked political officials..

        July 19, 2013 at 1:59 pm |
  28. SolarMoon

    Monga hiet msah onta besamba ingo

    July 19, 2013 at 1:56 am | Reply
  29. EatYouAlive

    the sky is falling!

    July 19, 2013 at 1:44 am | Reply
  30. Jdan

    Says '2 responses', but there are no responses visible here. Nobody answer Keith Alexander and gets away with it.

    July 18, 2013 at 11:45 pm | Reply

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