The head of the U.S. National Security Agency is preparing to deal with new constraints on spying methods at home and abroad while warning they may make the nation more vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
General Keith Alexander spent the last few days being questioned by members of Congress considering restraints on the agency’s collection of phone and Internet data, and at a speaking engagement where he was pressed on possible curbs on the NSA’s eavesdropping on foreign leaders.
Conceding the ground rules for spying probably will change, Alexander cautioned against excessive restrictions on U.S. abilities to gather intelligence.
“Catastrophic attacks are in our future,” Alexander said yesterday at a Bloomberg Government cybersecurity conference in Washington. “If we take away the tools we increase the risk and we ought to go into that with our eyes wide open.”
Alexander said the NSA wasn’t tapping into servers of Google Inc. (GOOG:US) and Yahoo Inc. (YHOO:US), after the Washington Post reported yesterday that the agency was capturing the companies’ data by intercepting international fiber-optic cables abroad.
Yahoo has “strict controls in place to protect the security of our data centers, and we have not given access to our data centers to the NSA or to any other government agency,” Sarah Meron, a spokeswoman for the Sunnyvale, California-based company, said in a an e-mailed statement.
Google was “outraged at the lengths to which the government seems to have gone to intercept data from our private fiber networks,” David Drummond, the company’s top lawyer, said in a statement.
“We do not provide any government, including the U.S. government, with access to our systems,” and the spying “underscores the need for urgent reform,” Drummond said.
President Barack Obama’s administration and lawmakers have said they are open to placing restrictions on the NSA, including what kind of data it can collect, how its databases can be mined, the ability to eavesdrop on foreign leaders and requiring the agency to defend its requests against a privacy advocate before a secret intelligence court.
Obama and allies need to determine if there’s a better way for countries to protect their national interests when “everybody is spying on everybody else,” Alexander said. “I think we absolutely need to re-look this.”
The message doesn’t satisfy privacy advocates like Patrick Toomey, a staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Security Project in New York.
Toomey said personal data should be protected whether it’s flowing across fiber-optic cables underground in the U.S., over ground in Europe or under water in international seas.
“What’s breathtaking is the scale of collection that is happening overseas,” he said in a phone interview.
Vanee Vines, a NSA spokesman, in an e-mailed statement didn’t say whether the agency taps fiber-optic cables abroad.
The NSA “has multiple authorities that it uses to accomplish its mission” and doesn’t collect vast quantities of data from U.S citizens, she said.
U.S. and German officials failed to resolve differences over spying in a meeting yesterday prompted by allegations that American intelligence bugged German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone.
“No one who is familiar with intelligence operations over the last 40 years” should be surprised that the NSA would tap cables overseas, or collect other intelligence through satellites or phones, Stewart Baker, a former general counsel for the agency, said in a phone interview.
“This is not patty cake,” Baker said. “This is intelligence gathering and it’s quite possible that it violates the laws of other countries because that’s what espionage does. Or it’s being done with the cooperation of the government, in which case it’s not a violation of the law.”
Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said yesterday he was “deeply concerned” about reports that the NSA broke into data networks overseas and that the agency “could be sweeping in the communications of millions of Americans” who use the services of Google and Yahoo.
Leahy said in a statement he’s asked the administration for a briefing to determine “what legal authority the government is using, and how they are protecting the privacy rights of law-abiding Americans.”
Leahy joined lawmakers including Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah, a favorite of Tea Party activists, to introduce a bill Oct. 29 that would restrict NSA operations, including prohibiting the bulk collection of phone records of millions of Americans.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, said her panel doesn’t have adequate oversight over operations the NSA conducts abroad under a presidential order known as EO 12333. She has called for a review of all U.S. intelligence operations.
The NSA is restricted in intercepting the communications of Americans, even overseas, and must segregate them from other data unless there is a legitimate intelligence purpose to retain it, said Baker, a partner in the Washington law firm Steptoe & Johnson LLP.
“This is the agency doing what it has to do for the United States to be safe and aware of surprises in the world,” he said.
Americans’ information almost certainly is “vacuumed up” because of the difficulty separating domestic and foreign communications, said Trevor Timm, a policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy advocacy group based in San Francisco.
Spying under the executive order “looks like it dwarfs other programs that we thought had no end to them,” Timm said in a phone interview.
“The NSA has misdirected, misinformed and misled the public about what they are actually doing,” he said.
Toomey, with the ACLU, said the NSA revelations show a need for nations to agree to new privacy rules on transnational surveillance operations.
To contact the reporters on this story: Chris Strohm in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org; Allan Holmes in Washington at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at firstname.lastname@example.org