Speaking to an audience of hackers and security professionals at the annual Black Hat conference in Las Vegas, National Security Agency Director General Keith Alexander defended the PRISM program and the NSA’s cache of phone metadata as necessary to protect the lives of American citizens and overseas allies. He also said that the programs are tightly monitored and that – in addition to technical tools that limit what analysts can access — all analysts are audited to be sure they have justification for any data they access.
He said that the NSAs “job is defending this country, saving lives, supporting our troops in combat.” He said that between the time of the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 to 9-11, “we failed to connect the dots.” He added, “we have tremendous oversight and compliance in these programs.” He argued that the way our country collects and uses data should be a model for the rest of the world.
Not collecting “everything”
General Alexander countered reports that the NSA is accessing vast amounts of data. “What comes out is that we’re collecting everything. That’s is not true.” He also said that “industry doesn’t just dump stuff to us and say there are some interesting facts. They are compelled by court order to comply.
He repeated the claim the information obtained by PRISM and phone records has helped prevent 54 attacks, including 13 in the United States, and he went into some detail on how the phone metadata program helped prevent an attack on the New York subway system by linking phone calls from terrorists in Pakistan with Najibullah Zazi in Colorado, and providing that information to the FBI, which helped thwart the attack.
Applause and outbursts
Alexander’s remarks were met mostly by polite applause but there were some outbursts, including one person who yelled out that he had lied to Congress. For more on that see Forbes’ Andy Greenberg’s coverage of the exchange between Alexander and a 30-year-old security consultant named Jon McCoy.
The general did not address new allegations published in the Guardian about an NSA program called XKeyscore which, according to the Guardian “allows analysts to search with no prior authorization through vast databases containing emails, online chats and the browsing histories of millions of individuals.” This according to documents provided to the Guardian by by Edward Snowden.
Listen to General’s speech
You can click here to listen to my recording of the General’s remarks from the audience (hence not the best audio quality).