In the wake of revelations the U.S. spied on some of its closest partners, the head of the National Security Agency said Thursday he thinks some relationships with allies are more important in the fight against terrorism than the gathering of intelligence.
A week after reports the United States was spying on German Chancellor Angela Merkel and potentially 30 or more other heads of state, Gen. Keith Alexander said there may be more effective ways of gathering the intelligence Washington needs without jeopardizing crucial relationships with allies.
“I think those partnerships have better value than some of the collection and we ought to look at it like that,” Alexander said at the Baltimore Council on Foreign Relations.
Alexander also talked about the intelligence leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, including the massive metadata collection the NSA is using to gather information on millions of phone calls Americans make. Alexander said the government is open to new ideas in the gathering of information to prevent potential terror attacks.
“I am not wed to these programs,” Alexander said. “If we can come up with a better way of doing them, we should.”
Despite all of the leaks and outcry from privacy advocates, Alexander said the government has followed the letter of the law. Members of the security agencies know they aren’t simply defending the nation at any cost; they’re also trying to uphold the value of civil liberties, he said.
“There is nothing that NSA or Cyber Command has done wrong,” Alexander said
“From where I sit, we do everything we can to do this right,” he said. “We hold ourselves accountable. We have a tremendous oversight and compliance regimen.”
All of the leaks have certainly opened the floodgates of debate on whether the government is striking the right balance between civil liberties and security. For his part, Alexander said the government is prepared to scale back its operations if that’s ultimately the will of Congress or a presidential administration.
“We’re holding this hornet’s nest as long as the nation needs us to,” he said. “And if Congress or the administration decides that we should put that tool down, we will do that.”
But there is a fear with the recent leaks that potential terrorists now know some of the strategies the intelligence community is using.
“This increases the probability that a terrorist attack will get through,” Alexander said. “I think it’s absolutely wrong.”