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    "I Don't Know a Better Way to Do It," NSA Chief Keith Alexander Tells Congress

    Written by

    Meghan Neal

    contributing editor

    Screenshot via Wikimedia

    Even amid new details revealing the outrageous scope of the US government's snooping, NSA Director Keith Alexander seems determined to defend the agency's dragnet surveillance programs right up until his last days at the Pentagon.

    With just a few months left of his eight year reign, the spy chief testified before the Senate today to argue against proposed legislation that would curtail the intelligence community's power to scoop up and monitor torrents of personal data. 

    During the congressional hearing Alexander trotted out the familiar line that mass surveillance programs are the only way to protect America from terrorist threats. Making the agency out to be something of a martyr, he argued the NSA is doing everything it can to live up to that task, even though he's getting a world of heat for it.

    "I don't know a better way to do it,” he said. "It's like holding onto a hornets' nest. We're getting stung. You've asked us to do this for the good of the nation … nobody's thought of a better way. We can't let the nation down."

    Alexander reiterated a few more times he doesn't know of a better way to protect the US from foreign threats without the current surveillance programs in place, and suggested that rolling back those programs or adding any extra layers of oversight could cripple the operation. (Watch his testimony at C-Span.)

    The director spoke before the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who co-sponsored one of the reform bills meant to curtail the NSA's reach. The bill, the USA Freedom Act, will be up for debate when Congress reconvenes in the New Year, and has already collected 120 bipartisan cosponsors. It proposes forbidding the agency from collecting bulk phone records without suspicion of a crime, spying on foreign leaders, and calls for more transparency and oversight in general. 

    Leahy has been particularly outspoken against the agency's invasion of Americans' privacy, as well as Alexander's habit of using counterterrorism to rationalize it. He prodded Alexander for a number—or range—of how many terrorism plots were thwarted by the metadata secretly collected from US citizens' phone records. The director responded, "I'd have to go back and get the specifics on that," adding he probably couldn't get it done by next Wednesday when the legislature goes home for the holiday break.

    It's hardly the first time the General Alexander has hedged when asked how many terrorism plots were directly thwarted by information obtained through the dragnet surveillance. Early claims by the administration that put the number around 54 were later walked back to just a handful, if that. 

    "We can do a huge amount, but at some point you have to ask, what do you get out of it?" Leahy said at the hearing. The senator got a few more punches in, comparing Alexander to J. Edgar Hoover, who, Leahy pointed out, took his search for evil-doers to such extremes he nearly investigated the New York Times for being a communist rag. "I almost think, what would it have been like if he had had the power that you in the NSA have," he jabbed.

    But Alexander, along with Deputy Attorney General James Cole and Robert S. Litt, general council for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, argued that there's more than enough oversight in place—even too much. When the idea of adding a public advocate to the FISA court was raised, Cole opposed it because it could slow down the process—which, as the Guardian rightly noted, is the whole point.

    More on the NSA:

    NSA Chief Keith Alexander Takes His PRISM Pitch to YouTube: "It's Like Taking a Bath"

    Death and the NSA: Motherboard Meets Bruce Schneier

    What the Three Largest NSA Lawsuits Are Fighting For