The head of the NSA on Wednesday addressed what has become worldwide concern over the agency's standard procedures for collecting intelligence.
Army Gen. Keith Alexander, the director of the NSA, referenced Wednesday the criticism thrown at the intelligence services in late 2001 for not "connecting the dots" that led up to the Sept. 11 attacks. His agency subsequently "came up with a couple of programs," he said, which have in recent months been targeted for severe criticism from privacy advocates, members of Congress and foreign allies of America, whose citizens may have been targets of this surveillance.
These programs, exposed by expatriate leaker and former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, collect information about phone calls made within and outside the U.S. and cross-examine them with known terrorist phone numbers. The contents of the calls are not collected, senior intelligence officials say.
"When NSA has insights that a terrorist is trying to do something inside this country, and we can come up with a reasonable, articulable suspicion that they're associated with al-Qaida or with aiding groups, we can then take that [phone] number, open up this 'locked box' that has all this data in it, and look into it," Alexander said, while speaking at the Billington Cybersecurity Summit at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
Fewer than 300 numbers were analyzed using this information in 2012, he said.
The NSA has faced sharp criticism since Snowden leaked details of the program in June. It has launched a public relations campaign to improve its image, including releasing formerly classified FISA court rulings that it says demonstrates its "self-policing" abilities after accidentally collecting information on Americans.
"It's interesting for our allies to understand that this sitting system we have and we share with our allies, if we make a mistake, whether it's against a U.S. person or a foreign person, we hold ourselves accountable and we report it," he said.
The NSA answers to a cloistered court established under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, which then rules on the legality of its methods.
In 1981, Ronald Reagan signed Executive Order 12333 establishing new rules for intelligence agencies operating overseas. Amended versions of the order have, for example, loosened restrictions on assassinations if the target is linked to terrorist activities.
It is one of the chief authorities for NSA activities abroad, Alexander said, and has only been willfully violated 12 times in the last 10 years. Most were foreign nationals working with the agency, he said. All were either prosecuted and punished or resigned.
"They did something wrong, and we held them accountable," he said. "We did the right thing."
But this oversight has not been enough for many, including experts at the Electronic Privacy Information Center , or certain members of Congress.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairs the powerful Judiciary Committee and said Tuesday he strongly endorsed sweeping restrictions on NSA activity, reports POLITICO.
He called for a "hard look at the existing oversight structure and what we are asking of the judges appointed to the FISA court," which operates largely in secret.
Alexander on Wednesday cited more than 950 people he said have died in the last week in Kenya, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan through terrorist activity, he said.
"We are discussing more esoteric things here. Why? Because we've stopped terrorist attacks here. We've been fortunate, and it's not been luck," he said. "It's our military that's out forward and its our intelligence community that's back here."
"They keep us safe," he said.