NSA chief: ‘We’re trying to be transparent here’

Updated
Gen. Keith B. Alexander, commander, U.S. Cyber Command and director, National Security Agency/Chief, Central Security Service arrives  on Capitol Hill in...
Gen. Keith B. Alexander, commander, U.S. Cyber Command and director, National Security Agency/Chief, Central Security Service arrives on Capitol Hill in...
Charles Dharapak/AP Photo

The director of the National Security Agency has a message for the American people: Trust us.

General Keith Alexander testified in front of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday—his first public remarks since it was revealed the government was obtaining millions of Americans’ phone records and was operating a program that allowed the government to gather information about the online activities of foreigners abroad via nine leading Internet companies.

Alexander, in his opening remarks, said the NSA operates “under strict guidelines and accountability.” He added, “everything depends on trust. We operate in a way that ensures we keep the trust of the American people because that trust is a sacred requirement.”

During questioning, Alexander said the government’s phone surveillance program has helped prevent “dozens” of potential terrorist attacks and said the NSA would publish an official number of critical cases that were helped by phone monitoring. Other numbers, he said, may be classified. “I want the American people to know that we’re trying to be transparent here,” said Alexander.

Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin grilled Alexander about professed NSA leaker Edward Snowden, who revealed documents about the government’s surveillance program over the weekend. The Illinois lawmaker pointed out that Snowden’s a high school and community college dropout and was injured while training to be in the Army.

“Are you troubled that he was given that kind of opportunity to be so close to important information that was critical to the security of our nation?” Durbin asked.

Alexander said he had “great concerns” about Snowden but argued he had “great skills” in the area of IT administration, the area he worked in. The NSA chief added, however, “we do have to go back and look at the [hiring and access] processes…where they went wrong and how we fix those.”

Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski hit back on Alexander’s claim he was qualified. “Just because you’re a swimmer [with great skill] doesn’t mean we ought to make you a Navy Seal.”

When Sen. Susan Collins of Maine asked about Snowden’s claim that while at the NSA he had the ability to tap into virtually any American’s phone or emails, Alexander said that answer was “false,” adding “I know no way to do that.”

Since Snowden revealed documents about the government’s surveillance programs, critics from liberal advocates to conservative libertarians have expressed outrage over the government’s aggressive snooping. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit Tuesday challenging the constitutionality of the program.

President Obama has defended the programs, insisting they prevent terrorism, possess sufficient oversight and protect civil liberties. He’s also said Congress has been briefed of the practices.

Snowden, 29, flew to Hong Kong where he blew the lid over the weekend on the federal surveillance programs.

His exact whereabouts are unknown, but on Wednesday night the South China Morning Post published an interview with the 29-year-old former defense contractor and CIA employee. Snowden told the paper that he plans to stay in Hong Kong until he’s “asked to leave.”

“People who think I made a mistake in picking [Hong Kong] as a location misunderstood my intentions,” Snowden said. “I am not here to hide from justice; I am here to reveal criminality.” He added that he’s had many opportunities to flee Hong Kong but would rather “stay and fight the United States government in the courts, because I have faith in Hong Kong’s rule of law.”

The paper said Snowden has been hiding out in “secret locations” in Hong Kong.

The Senate and House intelligence committees will hold a briefing on the surveillance programs again on Thursday.

NSA chief: 'We're trying to be transparent here'

Updated