Trust but Terrify

NSA chief Keith Alexander conjures 9/11 and other terrorist threats to cow an already docile Congress.

Director of the National Security Agency Keith Alexander
Director of the National Security Agency Keith Alexander (second from left) testies during a hearing before the House Intelligence Committee on Oct. 29, 2013 in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Not long from now, Keith Alexander will wrap up his career running the National Security Agency. He will be remembered as the man holding the bag when Edward Snowden decided to leak thousands of documents about the NSA’s practices. There’s nothing Alexander can do about that.

What he can do, and what he did at Tuesday’s hearing of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, is defend America’s snoops as honest patriots being pilloried by those who don’t know better. Alexander began his testimony by tossing aside his prepared remarks, high drama usually reserved for best-man speeches or student-council debates.

“I’m gonna talk, from the heart, so that you know what we’re talking about here, from an NSA perspective, is what the nation needs to know and hear,” he said. “How did we end up here? 9/11. Two-thousand nine-hundred and ninety-six people were killed on 9/11. We all distinctly remember that. What I remember most is those firemen running up the stairs to save people, and then lose their lives.”

This set the tone for the intelligence community’s pushback against attacks on every front—House, Senate, White House, media, public. Alexander had been talking like this for a while. Last week, he gave an interview to an official Department of Defense news site, pleading for “a way of stopping” journalists from obtaining Snowden’s documents, and suggesting the 9/11 commission wanted “tools that help us connect the dots” like the bulk data collection programs now being leaked and condemned.

That wasn’t actually the 9/11 Commission’s advice, but it sounded suitably terrifying. The NSA’s challenge, which looked impossible on Tuesday, is to convince policymakers to remain as spooked now as they were 12 years ago. The timing is awkward. Tuesday also marked the release of the USA Freedom Act, a joint product of Patriot Act critic Sen. Pat Leahy and Patriot Act co-author Rep. James Sensenbrenner. If passed, it would prohibit bulk collection of data under Section 215 of the 2001 law and require FISA court decisions to be disclosed if they “significantly” reinterpret the current code.

And while Alexander and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper were talking to the House committee, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence was marking up its own unreleased NSA reform—this after Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the committee, had condemned reported monitoring of the phones of foreign leaders. All of this was happening on a week that had been expected to bring Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff to Washington for a state visit. She canceled, citing the snooping revelations that fueled a feud between Brazilian regulators and American tech firms.

The Patriot Act’s longtime critics are less keen on whatever Feinstein does than on Sensenbrenner-Leahy—“the amendment that I’ve been unsuccessful with for the last few years,” as Sen. Dick Durbin called it Tuesday. The House Intelligence committee isn’t exactly a den of Patriot critics, though, and on Tuesday its interrogators fit into three categories. Some wanted only to thank the intelligence community and send it back to work. Some wanted largely cosmetic change. Some wanted actual change—and this was the group easiest to hush up.

The chairman and ranking member, Rep. Mike Rogers and Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, fit snugly into the first two roles. They started by agreeing with Clapper and Alexander that the reports of bulk U.S. spying on the population of Spain, a revelation spooled out by journalist Glenn Greenwald this weekend, was phony, a result of bad reporting.

“The person looking at it didn’t know what he was looking at,” said Alexander.

That was good enough for Rogers, who stopped short of Feinstein and didn’t chide the intelligence leaders for failing to share information. “We could go through mounds of product that would allow a member to be as informed as a member could be,” he said.

“I shudder to think what connections could be missed if the program were eliminated,” offered Ruppersberger.

Rep. Adam Schiff, a supporter of this year’s failed amendment to defund the NSA, found that specious. “I wonder if we’re seeing what you sometimes see in litigation, where you’re given a warehouse full of documents …”

Rogers cut him off, explaining that, yes, a member of the committee really could dig deeper if he so wished. He or she had access to more secrets than the rest of Congress. “This feeds into this flame of bad reporting about lack of oversight,” he said.

Also feeding that flame: The uncurious questioning of most of the committee’s Republicans. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, a Georgian who became briefly famous when Stephen Colbert stumped him with questions about the Ten Commandments, urged Alexander and Clapper to discuss how Americans were already giving up their data. “A lot of private companies have a lot more information on private citizens than the NSA does,” he said, “and use that information in ways we might not want that information to be shared.”

Rep. Michele Bachmann, who’s retiring at the end of next year, used her time to ask Alexander short, leading questions about the nefariousness of Edward Snowden.

“Were Mr. Snowden’s actions unconstitutional?” she asked.

“Yes,” said Alexander.

“Did Mr. Snowden’s illegal, unconstitutional actions enable the terrorists who want to kill Americans?” asked Bachmann.

“They have and they will,” said Alexander.

Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo chastised his peers—not named, but implied—for reacting to each revelation by asking for new oversight. Why, he asked, did the NSA require some ombudsman or public advocate (the latter is one of Schiff’s ideas), when Congress could simply work harder to provide some secret oversight.

“When everybody was slamming something, saying I didn’t know about this, you stood forward and said, I did,” said Alexander. “That’s huge. That’s what the nation expects.”

“You’re most welcome,” said Pompeo.

That exchange suggested that the intelligence community’s long-running outreach strategy to Congress was, occasionally, working as designed. The White House’s denial that the president ever approved the latest revealed snooping has emboldened Congress to criticize the president. The NSA’s insistence that it wants to be transparent, only when talking to the right people, is also a sop to Congress. If the momentum for reform can be redirected just a little, Congress can quibble with itself about whether it’s already doing enough to watch the spies who want to prevent another 9/11.

“What has the intelligence committee been doing the last four years?” asked Sen. John McCain on Tuesday. “Aren’t they supposed to be oversighting these programs? We need a select committee, because the standing committees haven’t done their job.”