NSA Surveillance in Context
By all means, let us continue to debate the surveillance activities conducted by the National Security Agency (NSA) to make sure that our privacy and civil liberties are not compromised, but let us not ignore the consequences of revealing some of our most sensitive national security information and let us also take a look at how the NSA activities and processes work in the context of our laws and national security and how they may have helped thwart terrorist plots.
Claudette Roulo at the American Forces Press Service provides the following insights.
Recent media leaks have caused “significant and irreversible damage” to U.S. security, the director of the National Security Agency said yesterday in Baltimore.
Public discussion of NSA’s tradecraft or the tools that support its operations provides insights that the nation’s adversaries can and do use, Army Gen. Keith B. Alexander told an audience at the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association International Cyber Symposium.
“Those who wish us harm now know how we counter their actions,” Alexander said. “These leaks have caused significant and irreversible damage to our nation’s security.
“The damage is real,” he continued. “I believe the irresponsible release of classified information about these programs will have a long-term detrimental impact on the intelligence community’s ability to detect future attacks. These leaks have inflamed and sensationalized for ignoble purposes the work that the intelligence community does lawfully under strict oversight and compliance.”
Explaining the programs exposed by the leaks, the general said the 9/11 Commission found that the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States succeeded because “the intelligence community could not connect the dots, foreign and domestic.”
To address that failing, Alexander said, the intelligence community set up and Congress authorized two programs. The first, Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act of 2001, allows the government to collect telephone metadata for foreign intelligence and international terrorism investigations. The second, Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, allows the targeting, for foreign intelligence purposes, of communications of foreign persons who are located abroad.
Each program is subject to strict oversight procedures by all three branches of the government, Alexander said.
“We understand and support the need to ensure we protect both civil liberties and national security. It’s not one or the other. It must be both,” he said. “That’s why we take oversight of these programs very seriously.”
According to a June 2012 report issued by the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, the general said, the committee did not find any cases of a government official willfully circumventing or violating the law while using the access granted under these authorities.
Under Section 215, telephone metadata is collected from service providers and placed into a “virtual lockbox,” the general explained. “The only way NSA can go into that lockbox is if we have what is called reasonable, articulable suspicion of a selector that is related to terrorism,” he said.
In 2012, NSA approved about 300 selectors, such as telephone numbers, to initiate queries into the virtual lockbox, Alexander said. For a request to be approved, he said, “there has to be a foreign nexus, an association with al-Qaida or other specified terrorist organizations.”
Alexander cited Operation High-Rise as an example of how this process works in practice.
The NSA used a Section 702 authorization to compel a service provider to turn over the emails of terrorists the agency was tracking in Pakistan, he said. Armed with that information, Alexander said, analysts found that an al-Qaida terrorist in Pakistan was emailing a person they believed to be in Colorado, and that information was then turned over to the FBI.
The man in Colorado turned out to be Najibullah Zazi, the general said. The FBI provided the NSA with Zazi’s phone number, which, combined with the email connection to the al-Qaida operative, provided reasonable, articulable suspicion for the NSA to access the virtual lockbox of telephone metadata, Alexander said.
“We looked in that lockbox, and we found that Zazi was talking to a guy in New York who had connections to other terrorist elements for another operation,” he said. The access allowed the NSA to connect Zazi to other potential terrorists as well, the general said.
“We got that information in early September 2009 for an attack that was supposed to take place in mid-September,” Alexander told the symposium audience. “It would have been the biggest al-Qaida attack on American soil since 9/11. We were privileged and honored to be a part of disrupting that plot. FAA 702 was the initial tip. That’s how important these programs are.”
In 2010, Zazi pleaded guilty to planning to conduct one of three coordinated suicide bombings on the New York City subway system during rush hour.
America’s allies have benefitted from the surveillance programs, as well, Alexander said.
Last week, he said, the NSA provided to Congress 54 cases “in which these programs contributed to our understanding and, in many cases, helped enable the disruption of terrorist plots in the U.S. and in over 20 countries throughout the world.”
Of the 54 cases, 42 involved disrupted plots, the general said. Twelve cases involved material support to terrorism, and 50 of the 54 led to arrests or detentions.
Forty-one cases involved targets outside the United States.
“Twenty-five of these events occurred in Europe, 11 in Asia, and five in Africa,” Alexander said. “Thirteen events had a homeland nexus. In 12 of those events, Section 215 contributed to our overall understanding and help to the FBI, 12 of the 13. That’s only where the business record FISA can play.”
In all but one of the cases the NSA provided to Congress, Section 702 data played a role or provided the initial tip, Alexander said. “A significant portion — almost half of our counterterrorism reporting — comes from Section 702,” he added.
The programs operate under a rigorous oversight framework, the general said. To target the content of a U.S. person’s communications anywhere in the world, FISA’s provisions require a finding of probable cause under a specific court order, he told the audience.
“These capabilities translate into significant information on ongoing terrorist activities, with no willful violations of our law,” he said. “I think that’s something to be proud of. We have defended the nation 54 times — and our allies — and we have ensured the protection of our civil liberties and privacy and oversight by … all three branches of our government. I think that’s what the nation expects our government to do: disrupt terrorist activities [and] defend our civil liberties and privacy.”