Keith Alexander Tells Senators He Can't Think Of Any Other Way To Keep The US Safe Other Than Bulk Metadata Collections

from the oh,-he-knows-other-ways...-he-just-doesn't-like-them dept

NSA head Gen. Alexander once again appeared before the Senate to defend his agency’s actions and to deliver the talking points in an effort to head off a number of pieces of legislation aimed at rolling back the NSA’s powers.

If the NSA has a chance to hold off what now appears to be near inevitable, it will need to update its rhetorical ploys. Alexander offered nothing much in the way of new arguments, which is only going to hurt the agency’s position. It looks as though the old stuff isn’t really working anymore. His assertion that the Section 215 program has led to 50+ terrorist attacks averted has disintegrated. Sen. Leahy raised additional questions about the efficiency of the 702 program (internet metadata) in the hunting terrorists. No answer was forthcoming but the agency head implied it would take much longer than next Wednesday’s hearing to come up with an answer.

No surprises here either, as Gen. Alexander almost literally played the 9/11 card.

“Metadata is a way of knowing where those books are in the library, and a way of focusing our collection… to knowing, where are the bad books,” Alexander says.

He holds up an index card – it’s meant to be an old-style card-catalog card (sorry, millennials) – on which are listed the categories of information encompassed by “metadata”: time, date, duration, contact numbers.

Then he returns to the 9/11 attacks and says, as he always does, that the attack might have been stopped by a metadata collection program like the USA has now.

Might have been. Except it wasn’t. Sen. Leahy called Alexander out for using this tired ploy.

Leahy jumps in and says the failure to prevent the 9/11 attacks also has been put down to a failure to communicate within the intelligence community. US agents had the info they needed, they just failed to share it with one another.

There’s no tread left on those tires, General. The Guardian points out this is the first time Alexander has been interrupted while deploying the “could have prevented 9/11” argument.

This wasn’t the only used-up rhetoric Alexander deployed. He defended the bulk collections by claiming he “didn’t know” a “better” way to protect Americans from terrorism.

“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.”

That was Alexander’s justification. There’s no other way but a bulk, untargeted metadata collection containing millions of records of non-suspects.

But when Alexander says there’s no other way to keep Americans safe, he’s (no surprise) lying. There is another way and Alexander knows it because the NSA was forced (by the FISA court) to accomplish the task of fighting terrorism without being given access to millions of non-relevant phone records. FISA Judge Walton’s orders, which followed on the heels of the admission of widespread abuse of the Section 215 collections, forced the NSA to seek court approval just to search what had previously been collected.

Since the March 5, 2009 FISA Court order, the Court’s approval has been required for each selector before it is tasked for BR FISA metadata analysis. On Mar 21 NSA resumed manual access to BR FISA metadata, allowing chaining [redacted] of FISA Court-approved selectors associated with [redacted] following multiple operational and technical reviews to ensure compliance.

As Judge Walton noted then, the collection itself seemed to be overkill and prone to abuse.

The minimization procedures… have been so frequently and systemically violated that it can fairly be said that this critical element of the overall BR regime has never functioned effectively.

Nearly all of the call detail records collected pertain to communications of non-US persons who are not the subject of an FBI investigation… [or] are communications of US persons who are not the subject of an FBI investigation… and are data that otherwise could not be legally captured in bulk by the government.

So, there are other ways to accomplish this and the agency has had to work within stricter limitations in the past. The multiple flaws in Alexander’s assertions are highlighted in this statement. Most of what’s collected isn’t pertinent to investigations and is, in fact, bordering on illegal. The only thing saving Alexander’s favorite collection is some very favorable readings of the Third Party Doctrine and secret interpretations of the laws governing these data hauls.

Legislative efforts being made aim to roll back some of this power, something Alexander can’t bear to see happen. If nothing else, a neutral storage site that can only be accessed by court-aprroved RAS selectors would be a start. But according to the chief spy, these limitations would lead to another 9/11. He wants it all and he wants unfettered access. There are other ways of compiling and searching metadata. Alexander knows this, but he has no interest in a more targeted approach.

This is Alexander’s “hornet nest.” Any stings he collects while handling it are solely his fault. If he doesn’t like the pain associated with handling the hornet’s nest, maybe he shouldn’t have fought so hard to keep holding it.

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Comments on “Keith Alexander Tells Senators He Can't Think Of Any Other Way To Keep The US Safe Other Than Bulk Metadata Collections”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Dear "General" Alexander....

“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.”

Then you need to step down and get someone who CAN find a better way! If you’re admitting that you’re fresh out of ideas, get someone else in there WHO CAN do it better.


Re: Dear "General" Alexander....

No. He’s just a bald faced liar. This kind of stuff does not benefit from making the problem larger. He just wants to play J Edgar Hoover.

He’s trying to take advantage of the fact that most people aren’t computer scientists that have worked on TIA type projects who know that he’s just so full of sh*t.

sorrykb says:

A few points for General Alexander

1. Only a police state can guarantee 100% security. (Although it doesn’t really do that, because in a police state, no one has protection from state-sanctioned abuse.)
2. People have thought of a better way: Thoughtful, focused intelligence-gathering. It’s an old-school premise, but it can still take advantage of new technologies without trampling the constitution. It also happens to be the only way that’s ever had any real success.
3. If General Alexander is hoping to stick with his (rather awkward) library metaphor, he might want to talk to a few librarians, because they’re likely to understand just how much detail can be gleaned from metadata.

artp (profile) says:

We can't let the nation down.

That sounds sooo patriotic.

So, we can’t let the nation down.
But we have to violate all the principles that this nation is founded on in order to not let the nation down.
Then it isn’t the nation that we have pledged to protect anymore.
So we aren’t letting the nation down by not collecting metadata or any other half-cocked scheme that is being used.
So we don’t have to do those half-cocked schemes.

There, wasn’t that simple?

Anonymous Coward says:

Gen Alexander’s predecessor was in on picking a replacement for himself. His concern with Alexander was that Alexander tended to jump in a do and damn the laws of the land. He would figure a way after the fact to justify it. And so it has come to be we now see where that has taken us with the NSA. A spy agency totally out of control.

No justification can actually be made that holds water for what this agency is now doing. It has broken it’s mandate, it’s stymied all reasonable oversight which now effectively makes it no oversight, and it has broken the intent as well as the laws of the land. Saying it is legal doesn’t make it so. Time and again courts have made that point with various local politicians and their ideas of how to make a law, only to have it voided by the courts saying it was unconstitutional.

This is one of the main reasons the DOJ, NSA, and the administration have fought so hard to keep anyone from having standing to take these issues to court. They know they have a very weak case should it actually require data turned into the public’s hands.

Alexander’s talking points don’t hold water at all. They have yet to point to one real terrorist act stopped for all the money that’s been sunk into hardware and services. The best they could come up with was stopping a taxi cab driver from sending money to a terrorist group. This goes hand in hand with the TSA being unable to produce any real terrorists caught and prevented from doing terrorism in the US.

The NSA failed on preventing 9/11. It failed in preventing the Boston bombing even with Russia telling them that they had a problem with the two brothers. The investigation failed to turn up any reasonable suspicion on the two brothers and was dropped.


The Real Deal

The kind of software that he is talking about did exist in 2001. However, it would not have required mass collection of metadata in order to work. In fact, such systems work BETTER when they aren’t bogged down by a lot of irrelevant data.

Innovators in this area actually actively discourage the kind of nonsense that the NSA has been engaging in.

Making the haystack bigger just makes everything harder.

Nothing is gained by ignoring the intent of the 4th amendment.

NSA Traitors says:

NSA = Anti America

NSA head Gen. Keith Alexander and much of the NSA have repeatedly violated the laws of the country. This has been going on for years. These people are traitors and should be charged with crimes against their country. If they don’t talk, send them to Guantanamo with the other terrorists and torture it out of them. The NSA is an enemy of America.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: NSA = Anti America

These people are traitors and should be charged with crimes against their country

They should be charged with any crimes they actually committed, and they should be punished in accordance with the law.

To do as you suggest — convict them of bogus treason charges and ship them off to gitmo to be tortured — is just as anti-America as anything that they’re doing.

Anonymous Coward says:

Well duh...

This is what the NSA does, this is his job – why would he tell the Senate that his agency is useless in protecting America?

It is not his job to invent less intrusive ways to spy on people, it’s his job to spy on people as intrusively as possible within the law. The problem really is – the NSA currently believes they’re operating within the law.

Anonymouse Coward (profile) says:

Then he returns to the 9/11 attacks and says, as he always does, that the attack might have been stopped by a metadata collection program like the USA has now.

The problem here is that for the > 95% of the world’s population that does not live in the US, NSA has become synonymous with USA, or USA with NSA – I get a bit confused as to which is which any more.

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