June 12, on the heels of information leaks about classified NSA surveillance practices by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, Gen. Keith B. Alexander testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee. The Army general serves as NSA’s director as well as commander of U.S. Cyber Command. He was joined in the hearings by representatives from Homeland Security, the FBI and the National Institute of Standards and Technology according to the American Forces Press Service.
Alexander told the committee, “Great harm has already been done by opening this up, and the consequence, I believe, is our security is jeopardized.”
“There’s no doubt in my mind,” the general continued, “that we will lose capabilities as a result of this, and that not only the United States, but those allies that we have helped, will no longer be as safe as they were two weeks ago.”
One of the most tangible explanations of the kind of damage done by Snowden came in Clapper’s example of the importance of phone surveillance in thwarting a planned New York City subway suicide bombing by Afghan-American Najibullah Zazi in 2009.
“We saw connections to a person in Colorado, and that was passed to the FBI. The FBI determined who that was: Zazi and [associated] phone numbers,” Alexander said.
“The phone numbers on Zazi were the things that then allowed us to use the business-records [under the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act] to go and find out connections from Zazi to other players throughout communities, specifically in New York City,” explained Alexander.
Alexander further reported the surveillance program has disrupted or helped to disrupt in the U.S. and abroad “dozens of terrorist events” including avoidance of a potentially catastrophic strike in the Zazi case. Alexander testified that he is seeking to determine what further information on the surveillance program can be declassified so the program can be explained more fully to the public.
The general expressed grave concerns about Snowden’s access and potential breakdowns in process oversight.
“I think what we have to do is come back and perhaps look at the oversight mechanism we have, …the automated checks and balances that exist, and what we can do to improve those,” said Alexander.
In response to questioning about Snowden’s claim that in his position at NSA he could tap into virtually any American’s phone calls or emails, the Alexander stated, “I know of no way to do that.”
Alexander’s testimony was matter-of-fact in tone compared to the high pitch of news frenzy and political grandstanding that surrounded the surveillance issues during the week culminating. Amid the alarmist tone of public discussions, few noticed how quickly the news reports first spawned by Snowden’s leaks had come under suspicion.
On Wednesday night, June 5, the first of the leaks emerged, according to an anchor of open media news site allvoices.com. The Guardian reported on secret court orders for Verizon to provide the NSA with millions of metadata records detailing time, location and other attributes of phone communications. By Thursday June 6, the Washington Post and Guardian were reporting on NSA access to nine major internet companies’ servers under the program begun in 2007 known as Prism.
Since the first news reports went viral, segments of the blogosphere have been revisiting the rush to publish. Apparently those reports were quickly and unceremoniously revised after challenges revealed inaccuracies in key facts. In thedailybanter.com, writer Bob Cesca details the factual flaws in two newspapers’ initial articles. In particular, Cesca calls out The Washington Post for only minimally acknowledging rewrites in its coverage to downplay initial exaggeration of the nature and extent of NSA access to internet company data.