NSA speaks out on Snowden, spying
The NSA gives unprecedented access to the agency’s HQ and, for the first time, explains what it does and what it says it doesn’t do: spy on Americans.
The following is a script from “Inside the NSA” which aired on Dec. 15, 2013. John Miller is the correspondent. Ira Rosen and Gabrielle Schonder, producers.
No U.S. intelligence agency has ever been under the kind of pressure being faced by the National Security Agency after details of some of its most secret programs were leaked by contractor Edward Snowden. Perhaps because of that pressure the agency gave 60 Minutes unprecedented access to NSA headquarters where we were able to speak to employees who have never spoken publicly before.
Full disclosure, I once worked in the office of the director of National Intelligence where I saw firsthand how secretly the NSA operates. It is often said NSA stands for “never say anything,” but tonight the agency breaks with that tradition to address serious questions about whether the NSA delves too far into the lives of Americans.
“The fact is, we’re not collecting everybody’s email, we’re not collecting everybody’s phone things, we’re not listening to that. Our job is foreign intelligence and we’re very good at that.”
Gen. Keith Alexander: The fact is, we’re not collecting everybody’s email, we’re not collecting everybody’s phone things, we’re not listening to that. Our job is foreign intelligence and we’re very good at that.
The man in charge is Keith Alexander, a four-star Army general who leads the NSA and U.S. Cyber Command.
John Miller: There is a perception out there that the NSA is widely collecting the content of the phone calls of Americans. Is that true?
Gen. Keith Alexander: No, that’s not true. NSA can only target the communications of a U.S. person with a probable cause finding under specific court order. Today, we have less than 60 authorizations on specific persons to do that.
John Miller: The NSA as we sit here right now is listening to a universe of 50 or 60 people that would be considered U.S. persons?
Gen. Keith Alexander: Less than 60 people globally who are considered U.S. persons.
But the NSA doesn’t need a court order to spy on foreigners, from its heavily protected headquarters in Fort Meade, Md., it collects a mind-numbing amount of data from phones and the Internet. They sort through it all looking for clues to terrorist plots, and intelligence on the intentions of foreign governments. To do all that they use a network of supercomputers that use more power than most mid-sized cities.
Gen. Alexander agreed to talk to us because he believes, the NSA has not told its story well.
Gen. Keith Alexander: “We need to help the American people understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.” And to put it simply, we’re doing two things: We’re defending this country from future terrorist attacks and we’re defending our civil liberties and privacy. There’s no reason that we would listen to the phone calls of Americans. There’s no intelligence value in that. There’s no reason that we’d want to read their email. There is no intelligence value in that.
What they are doing is collecting the phone records of more than 300 million Americans.
John Miller: Then why do you need all of those phone records?
Gen. Keith Alexander: How do you know when the bad guy who’s using those same communications that my daughters use, is in the United States trying to do something bad? The least intrusive way of doing that is metadata.
Metadata has become one of the most important tools in the NSA’s arsenal. Metadata is the digital information on the number dialed, the time and date, and the frequency of the calls. We wanted to see how metadata was used at the NSA. Analyst Stephen Benitez showed us a technique known as “call chaining” used to develop targets for electronic surveillance in a pirate network based in Somalia.
Stephen Benitez: As you see here, I’m only allowed to chain on anything that I’ve been trained on and that I have access to. Add our known pirate. And we chain him out.
John Miller: Chain him out, for the audience, means what?
Stephen Benitez: People he’s been in contact to for those 18 days.
Stephen Benitez: One that stands out to me first would be this one here. He’s communicated with our target 12 times.
Stephen Benitez: Now we’re looking at Target B’s contacts.
John Miller: So he’s talking to three or four known pirates?
Stephen Benitez: Correct. These three here. We have direct connection to both Target A and Target B. So we’ll look at him, too, we’ll chain him out. And you see, he’s in communication with lots of known pirates. He might be the missing link that tells us everything.
John Miller: What happens in this space when a number comes up that’s in Dallas?
Stephen Benitez: So If it does come up, normally, you’ll see it as a protected number– and if you don’t have access to it, you won’t be able to look.
If a terrorist is suspected of having contacts inside the United States, the NSA can query a database that contains the metadata of every phone call made in the U.S. going back five years.
John Miller: So you understand then, there might be a little confusion among Americans who read in the newspaper that the N.S.A. has vacuumed up, the records of the telephone calls of every man, woman and child in the United States for a period of years– that sounds like spying on Americans.
Gen. Keith Alexander: Right, and that’s wrong. That’s absolutely wrong.
John Miller: You don’t hear the call?
Gen. Keith Alexander: You don’t hear the call.
John Miller: You don’t see the name.
Gen. Keith Alexander: You don’t see the names.
John Miller: You just see this number, called that number.
Gen. Keith Alexander: The– this number– the “to/from” number, the duration of the call and date/time, that’s all you get. And all we can do is tell the FBI, “That number is talking to somebody who is very bad, you ought to go look at it.”
But privacy advocates argue American’s phone records should not sit in bulk at the NSA, searchable under a blanket court order. They believe the NSA should have to get a separate court order for each number and that the record should stay at the phone company.
John Miller: You get the bill from whatever the service provider is and you see who it’s calling in America. You don’t need to collect every American’s phone numbers to do that.
Gen. Keith Alexander: Well, the reality is if you go and do a specific one for each, you have to tell the phone companies to keep those call detail records for a certain period of time. So, if you don’t have the data someplace you can’t search it. The other part that’s important, phone companies– different phone companies have different sets of records. And these phone calls may go between different phone companies. If you only go to one company, you’ll see what that phone company has. But you may not see what the other phone company has or the other. So by putting those together, we can see all of that essentially at one time.
John Miller: Before 9/11, did we have this capability?
Gen. Keith Alexander: We did not.
John Miller: Is it a factor? Was it a factor?
Gen. Keith Alexander: I believe it was.
What Gen. Alexander is talking about is that two of the 9/11 hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi were in touch with an al Qaeda safe house in Yemen. The NSA did not know their calls were coming from California, as they would today.
Gen. Keith Alexander: I think this was the factor that allowed Mihdhar to safely conduct his plot from California. We have all the other indicators but no way of understanding that he was in California while others were in Florida and other places.
Edward Snowden revealed another program called “prism.” Which the NSA says is authorized under the foreign intelligence surveillance act, or FISA. Prism is the program the NSA uses to target the Internet communications of terrorists. It has the capability to capture emails, chats, video and photos. But privacy experts believe the NSA’s dragnet for terrorists on the Internet may also be sweeping up information on a lot of Americans.
Gen. Keith Alexander: No. That’s not true. Under FISA, NSA can only target the communications of a U.S. person with a probable cause finding under specific court order.
John Miller: A judge in the FISA court, which is the court that secretly hears the NSA cases and approves or disapproves your requests. Said the NSA systematically transgressed both its own court-appointed limits in bulk Internet data collection programs.
Gen. Keith Alexander: There was nobody willfully or knowingly trying to break the law.
The NSA says their analysts use highly technical systems under increasingly complex legal requirements and that when mistakes are made, they’re human errors, not intentional abuses. The Snowden leaks have challenged the NSA officials to explain programs they never intended to talk about. So how did an obscure contractor and computer specialist, pull off the most damaging breach of secrets in U.S. history? Few have spent more time thinking about that than Rick Ledgett.
John Miller: How long have you been with the NSA?
Rick Ledgett: For 25 years.
John Miller: How many television interviews have you done?
Rick Ledgett: One, this one.
Ledgett runs the NSA task force doing the damage assessment on the Snowden leaks. And until this interview, the NSA has never discussed the specifics of the extent damage they believe Snowden has done and still could do.