NSA Director: Don’t Worry, Trust Us

General Keith Alexander, head of the NSA, gave the keynote speech at the Black Hat security conference in Las Vegas today. It was more interesting than I expected.

Not for the speech itself, which contained zero bombshells–(update: a transcript and video are available)–or for the questions. There was exactly one non-pre-filtered question from the audience, the short version of which was, “Why do foreigners attack America?” (Was it planted? Your guess is as good as mine.)

That said, the audience seemed to largely be on his side, which surprised me. I had expected the tech-security crowd to be heavily anti-NSA, but occasional heckling was met with only scattered applause, whereas when Alexander retorted to “Read the Constitution!” with “I have. You should too,” the resulting ovation was loud and broad.

He did reveal some numbers. Only 22 people at the NSA, he reported, can approve numbers on the US metadata/business-records list for querying; 35 analysts are authorized to run those queries; and in 2012, fewer than 300 phone numbers were approved for queries, which led to all of 12 reports to the FBI. As for what’s captured and what isn’t:


What interested me most was the attitude. The NSA seems to believe that what Americans are most concerned about is the prospect of some cowboy analyst coloring outside the lines. General Alexander reinforced again and again that the US metadata-collection program has “100% auditability” (though I don’t recall him saying the same about the Section 702 foreign-intercept program) and “Our people have to take courses and pass exams.”

From my notes, which I believe are close to a word-for-word transcription here:

Many of you are saying: ‘I hear what you’re saying but I don’t trust that.’ The Senate Intelligence Committee found no wilful or knowledgeable violations of the law in this program. More specifically, they found no one at NSA had ever gone outside the boundaries of what we’ve been given. What people are saying is, ‘Well, they could.’ The fact is, they don’t. And if they did, our auditing tools would detect them, and they would be held accountable, and they know that from the courses that they take and the pledge that they’ve made … Their intent is to find the terrorist that walks among us.

The idea that anyone might object to the mere existence of massive classified domestic surveillance programs overseen by a one-sided star-chamber court, even if its analysts faithfully follow all the rules that they have been given, almost seems to have passed him by entirely.

Oh, there was some lip service given: “How do we start this discussion on defending our nation and protecting our civil liberties and privacy?” Metadata analysis was described as “the least intrusive measure that we could figure out. And that’s something we should discuss.” He ended with “Help us defend the country and come up with a better solution. The whole reason I came here is to ask you to help us to make it better.”


But of course this is all completely disingenuous; if the NSA actually wanted to have a conversation about civil liberties and the limits of its remit, it wouldn’t have waited until the discussion was forced on it by Edward Snowden. What General Alexander truly believes is all too clear: “If we tell everybody what we’re doing, then our adversaries will know how to get through our defenses … that’s why I believe the damage to our country is significant and irreversible.”

The notion that there might be some optimal middle ground between “don’t let the public know about even the existence of vast surveillance programs that may affect them” and “tell everybody everything!” appears to have eluded him entirely. The NSA would clearly prefer that the public’s eyes remain closed and our trust remains blind.

Update: I forgot to mention: for context, General Alexander is the same man who said, one year ago, to this same audience: “Anybody who would tell you that we’re keeping files or dossiers on the American people knows that’s not true.” You may adjust your interpretations of his speech today accordingly.