National Security Agency Director Keith Alexander was forced to respond to the latest bombshell report on the agency's surveillance activities on Wednesday, first saying he hadn't heard of the story and then denying the substance of the story.
The Washington Post reported Wednesday that the NSA hacked into the data centers of Yahoo and Google -- two of the biggest email and cloud storage providers. It cites documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
“I don’t know what the report is,” Alexander said, as reported by Politico. When asked if the NSA tapped the data centers, he replied "Not to my knowledge, that's never happened."
An NSA spokesman followed up later with a more explicit statement responding to the story: "NSA has multiple authorities that it uses to accomplish its mission, which is centered on defending the nation. The Washington Post's assertion that we use Executive Order 12333 collection to get around the limitations imposed by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and FAA 702 is not true. The assertion that we collect vast quantities of U.S. persons' data from this type of collection is also not true. NSA applies attorney general-approved processes to protect the privacy of U.S. persons -- minimizing the likelihood of their information in our targeting, collection, processing, exploitation, retention, and dissemination. NSA is a foreign intelligence agency. And we're focused on discovering and developing intelligence about valid foreign intelligence targets only."
According to the Post, in just a month, hundreds of thousands of millions of records had been processed by the NSA, records that included from “'metadata,' which would indicate who sent or received e-mails and when, to content such as text, audio and video." The Post reports that the program, known as "MUSCULAR," is distinct from the now-famous PRISM program because the former collects private companies' data without their approval and without mediation from the courts.
Previous denials by intelligence officials regarding NSA activities have turned out to be false. Prior to Snowden's leaks, both Alexander and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper had publicly denied that the agency collected "any data at all" on American citizens.
Congress is currently considering bills that would end the NSA's bulk collection of communications data or explicitly authorize it. During his appearance at the cybersecurity event, Alexander emphasized that he believed that "these are people trying to do the right thing for the country on both sides of the aisle," but that ending bulk data collection would leave the country vulnerable to terrorism.
"If we stop doing some of this we're going to create a gap," Alexander said. "If we take away the tools, we increase the risk, and we ought to go into that with our eyes wide open."