Army Gen. Keith Alexander, the director of the National Security Agency, said on Tuesday he is open to increased transparency and oversight of his agency's surveillance programs, but added that the data collection authority should stay intact.
While Alexander said during a speaking event in Washington, D.C., that he is open to suggestions about ways to improve oversight and transparency on the surveillance program, he defended the authority to collect and use data to track terrorist threats. The balancing act that the NSA faces is how to maintain public confidence in the programs while still keeping enough information confidential to maintain a intelligence advantage, Alexander said
"How do we ensure that the American people know that what we are doing is exactly right without letting the terrorists know how to circumvent it," Alexander said. "I think the authority should stay intact. I am open to transparency. I am open to where we put the data."
Defending data collection as crucial to preventing terrorist attacks, Alexander said the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, happened because "we didn't have a repository to help us connect the dots" and track terrorist activity using phone and Internet data.
"The intelligence community was found lacking by the 9/11 Commission," Alexander said. "If we don't know there is a threat we can't stop it."
The NSA has a responsibility to monitor terrorist activity using surveillance tools but it also has to observe civil liberties, he added.
"I am the biggest advocate of the Internet, I think we should have privacy and civil liberties," Alexander said.
Calls for transparency and oversight of surveillance conducted by the NSA have increased since June when former NSA contractor Edward Snowden began leaking information about the agency's collection of phone and Internet data. There is now a growing stack of bills in Congress to reform the NSA, with increased transparency measures as the most popular option. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has proposed a bill to add oversight and transparency measures to the NSA's programs, while maintaining its surveillance programs. Stricter reforms proposed by Senators Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Mark Udall, D-Colo., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., would prohibit bulk collection of phone and metadata records by the agency. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., is also considering a legislative package of reforms to be unveiled before the end of the year.