US national security chief says phone record logs halted terror threats
Telephone records destroyed after five years, senator tells Congress
Gen Keith Alexander walks to a closed door US Senate intelligence committee meeting in Washington yesterday. Photograph: Mark Wilson/Getty Images
The director of the National Security Agency told the US Congress on Wednesday that “dozens” of terrorism threats had been halted by the agency’s huge database of logs of nearly every domestic phone call made by Americans, while a senator briefed on the programme disclosed that the telephone records are destroyed after five years.
The director, Gen Keith Alexander, who heads both the NSA and United States Cyber Command, which runs the military’s offensive and defensive use of cyberweapons, told sceptical members of the Senate Appropriations Committee that his agency was doing exactly what Congress authorised after the attacks of September 11th, 2001.
Gen Alexander said he welcomed debate over the legal justification for the programme because “what we’re doing to protect American citizens here is the right thing”. He said the agency “takes great pride in protecting this nation and our civil liberties and privacy” under the oversight of Congress and the courts.
“We aren’t trying to hide it,” he said. “We’re trying to protect America. So we need your help in doing that. This isn’t something that’s just NSA or the administration doing it on its own. This is what our nation expects our government to do for us.”
Declassification of details
But in his spirited exchanges with committee members Gen Alexander said he was seeking to declassify many details about the programme now that they have been leaked by Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor who came forward to say he was the source of documents about the phone log programme and other classified matters.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who is chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was the first to disclose that the records are eventually destroyed. She said she planned to hold a classified hearing yesterday on the programme. But at the Wednesday hearing, where testimony about the government’s planned $13 billion spending on cybersecurity was largely swept aside for a discussion of the surveillance programme, Senator Feinstein also revealed that investigators have used the database for purposes beyond countering terrorism, suggesting it might have also been employed in slowing Iran’s nuclear programme.
Analysts can look at the domestic calling data only if there is a reason to suspect it is “actually related to al-Qaeda or to Iran”, she said, adding: “The vast majority of the records in the database are never accessed and are deleted after a period of five years. To look at or use the content of a call, a court warrant must be obtained.”
In a robust defence of the phone programme, Gen Alexander said it had been critical in helping to prevent “dozens of terrorist attacks” both in the United States and abroad, and that the intelligence community was considering declassifying examples to better explain the programme.
He did not clarify whether the records used in such investigations would have been available through individual subpoenas without the database.
He also later drew back from the claim slightly, saying the phone log database was used in conjunction with other programmes.
Security of network
In his testimony, Gen Alexander said he had “grave concerns” about how Mr Snowden had access to such a wide range of top-secret information, from the details of a secret programme called Prism to speed the government’s search of internet materials to a presidential document on cyberstrategy. He said the entire intelligence community was looking at the security of its networks – something other government officials vowed to do after the WikiLeaks disclosures three years ago.
Under the Prism programme, the NSA collects information from US internet companies such as Google without individualised court orders if the request is targeted at non-citizens abroad.
As part of the review from the fallout of leaks about Prism and the phone programme, intelligence agencies will seek to determine whether terrorist suspects have increased their use of code words or couriers, have stopped using networks such as Facebook of Skype, or have “gone silent” and can no longer be found, according to current and former senior US officials from the hearing.
The review, which will most likely last for many months to determine the long-term impact of the disclosures , will also include a “cost/benefit analysis” of the programmes. – (New York Times)