If you were still no sure about which side to take over Edward Snowden, this might help you take one. The amount of damage he has caused and lives he put at risk is enormous.
The intelligence community isn’t used to explaining itself in public, but over the past few months, with much prodding by Congress and the press, it has taken some small, tentative steps. Last week, I spent an hour with General Keith B. Alexander, who retired in March after eight years as the director of the N.S.A. The forces pushing for omnivorous data collection are larger than any one person, but General Alexander’s role has been significant. We met on Wednesday morning, in the conference room of a public-relations firm in the Flatiron District. He is a tall man with a firm handshake and steady eyes who speaks rapidly and directly.
Here are excerpts from the interview.
In January, President Obama claimed that the N.S.A. bulk-metadata program has disrupted fifty-four terrorist plots. Senator Patrick Leahy said the real number is zero. There’s a big difference between fifty-four and zero.
Those [fifty-four events] were plots, funding, and giving money—like the Basaaly Moalin case, where the guy is giving money to someone to go and do an attack. [Note: Moalin’s case is awaiting appeal.] It’s fifty-four different events like that, where two programs—the metadata program and the 702 program—had some play.
I was trying to think of the best way to illustrate what the intelligence people are trying to do. You know “Wheel of Fortune”? Here’s the deal: I’m going to give you a set of big, long words to put on there. Then I’m going to give you some tools to guess the words. You get to pick a vowel or a consonant—one letter. There’s a hundred letters up there. You’ll say, I don’t have a clue. O.K., so you’ve used your first tool in analysis. What the intelligence analysts are doing is using those tools to build the letters, to help understand what the plot is. This is one of those tools. It’s not the only tool. And, at times, it may not be the best tool. It evolved from 9/11, when we didn’t have a tool that helped us connect the dots between foreign and domestic.
Around 9/11, we intercepted some of [the hijackers’] calls, but we couldn’t see where they came from. So guys like [Khalid al-]Mihdhar, [one of the 9/11 hijackers who was living] in California—we knew he was calling people connected to Al Qaeda in Yemen. But we thought he was in the Middle East. We had no way to connect the dots. If you rewound 9/11, what you would have done is tipped the F.B.I. that a guy who is planning a terrorist attack is in San Diego. You may have found the other three groups that were with him.
The C.I.A. could have simply told the F.B.I. that al-Mindhar was in the country. Which they didn’t do, for whatever reason.
[Earlier this year, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (P.C.L.O.B.) recommended that the N.S.A. reduce its ability to dig into a targeted number’s chain of contacts. Previously, analysts had three hops—they could see a target’s friends’ friends’ friends. The P.C.L.O.B. recommended reducing this to two hops—a target’s friends’ friends. President Obama agreed.] Are we less safe now with two hops than we were with three hops?
I don’t think so. You can always go to the court with a reasonable articulable suspicion (R.A.S.) on a number. You just have to go through another step. But I think it’s doable. So I actually agreed with that.
There are people on one side saying that these N.S.A. programs could have stopped these plots. And then there are people who dispute that.
We know we didn’t stop 9/11. People were trying, but they didn’t have the tools. This tool, we believed, would help them. Let’s look at what’s happening right now. You ought to get this from the START Program at the University of Maryland. They have the statistics on terrorist attacks. 2012 and 2013. The number of terrorist attacks in 2012—do you know how many there were globally?
Six thousand seven hundred and seventy-one. Over ten thousand people killed. In 2013, it would grow to over ten thousand terrorist attacks and over twenty thousand people killed. Now, how did we do in the United States and Europe? How do you feel here? Safe, right? I feel pretty safe.
But the P.C.L.O.B. said that there weren’t any more plots [that were disrupted by the N.S.A. programs]. I don’t know if these are things that couldn’t be shared.
Sometimes, people don’t ask all the right questions.… Going back to “Wheel of Fortune,” 702 is like getting the free vowels. It helps you get all the key things that you need. It’s the base program. And, then, all the rest of your things are one-offs. Like the [telephone-metadata program]. It’s going to give you a piece, but it’s probably not going to be the key piece. It’s a starting point.
[Glenn] Greenwald has made a pretty good argument: if all this data is being controlled so carefully, then how was I able to get so much from this one person who had been taking it from the N.S.A. for months, unawares.
But he didn’t get this data. They didn’t touch—
The operational data?
They didn’t touch the FISA data. What they could have gotten was a report. But they didn’t get the database. That database, he didn’t have access to.
…Let’s go back to World War II and the German Enigma code. Would you agree that keeping that code secret was in our best interest to win the war?
The fact that we cracked it? Yes, absolutely. I agree.
O.K. And you may recall that, in 1942, [the German naval commander] Karl Dönitz came up with the thought that we’d cracked it, so he added a fourth rotor. We didn’t break that fourth rotor for nine months. And the war in the Atlantic shipping lanes—it went in the Germans’ favor. The tonnage that was sunk by the German U-boats over that nine months was significant. Then we broke the fourth rotor. Dönitz didn’t ask himself, Well, could they have broken the fourth rotor? And the rest of the war in the Atlantic, you know how it went. Those clues, the fate of a nation, and, I think, of the Western world, hung on that one key piece of information.
Now let’s go forward. How do you do enough against terrorists without telling them how you’re doing this? This is the issue that I have with leaking classified material, with what Snowden has done. I’ve had forty years of doing this. And some of those were good years.
This must be a very personal thing for you.
Yup. So think about how secure our nation has been since 9/11. We take great pride in it. It’s not because of me. It’s because of those people who are working, not just at N.S.A. but in the rest of the intelligence community, the military, and law enforcement, all to keep this country safe. But they have to have tools. With the number of attacks that are coming, the probability, it’s growing—
I’m sorry, could you say that once more?
The probability of an attack getting through to the United States, just based on the sheer numbers, from 2012 to 2013, that I gave you—look at the statistics. If you go from just eleven thousand to twenty thousand, what does that tell you? That’s more. That’s fair, right?
I don’t know. I think it depends what the twenty thousand—
—deaths. People killed. From terrorist attacks. These aren’t my stats. The University of Maryland does it for the State Department.
I’ll look at them. I will. So you’re saying that the probability of an attack is growing.
The probability is growing. What I saw at N.S.A. is that there is a lot more coming our way. Just as someone is revealing all the tools and the capabilities we have. What that tells me is we’re at greater risk. I can’t measure it. You can’t say, Well, is that enough to get through? I don’t know. It means that the intel community, the military community, and law enforcement are going to work harder.
So when people ask me that—including the President—would you give this up? I told them, Here’s my professional assessment of why—
Give what up?
B.R.-FISA. The Section 215 program. I said no.
Now, are there things we could do that don’t impact our security, but impact civil liberties and privacy? That’s what we’ve put on the table. I’m O.K. with that. I don’t care who keeps the data. You can have the service providers keep the data. And we’ll just do it like this. That’s fine; it’s their data. But you got to have the agility.
Congress is talking about reducing the amount of time that the metadata is kept, from five years to eighteen months.
Eighteen months to two years. That’s where they’re looking at. I’m O.K. with that. We sat down with our analysts. We asked, What are you comfortable with? I said, Now, tell me, because, you know, if something bad happens everybody in the world is going to ask: Why didn’t you tell us?
So we have to explain everything that we can, because I believe the terrorist attacks are coming. You’re going to be in an interview with my successor and say, How could you let this happen? And they’re going to say, Well, you eliminated all the tools to catch the terrorists! You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to figure that out.
Are there are other things that you can point to when you say that you believe more terrorist attacks are coming?
Look at the way Al Qaeda networks. From Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb, and now in Syria, the al-Nusra front. Look at the number of jihadists going into Syria and what they want to do. When put all that together, yeah, you can say those are distant countries, but a lot of these groups are looking to attack the United States. I take that threat very seriously.
Full article: “We’re At Greater Risk”: Q. & A. with General Keith Alexander (The New Yorker)