NSABadge

On Thursday night, at the end of a week packed with NSA drama that included revelations of MUSCULAR, the debut of a first surveillance “reform” bill, and a letter to Congress from tech leaders calling for more checks on spying, NSA director General Keith Alexander spoke to a friendly audience in Baltimore and asked for suggestions on how to better do his job.

Alexander peppered his Halloween address to the Baltimore Council of Foreign Affairs with jokes about his marriage, international espionage, and the complicity of US ambassadors in the NSA’s controversial spying programs. But he dedicated the serious moments of his speech to defending his agency and the justification for a surveillance program that even Secretary of State John Kerry has said went “too far.”

“These are programs that were developed to defend our country,” Alexander said. “I am not wed to these programs. If we can come up with a better way of doing them, we should.”

The NSA hasn’t been able to come up with spying programs that improve on the status quo, he said. Then, turning to a group of students in the audience from Baltimore Community College, he said: “Hopefully in your time, we will come up with a better way of doing it.”

During the course of his 30-minute speech and 45-minute Q&A session, Alexander defended programs such as PRISM and MUSCULAR, without naming them, by saying they help prevent terrorist attacks, such as the planned bombing of the New York subway, which the NSA helped foil in cooperation with the FBI by tracking emails and phone calls. Terrorist attacks worldwide were on the rise, he said, with more than 2,000 people killed and 1,500 injured last year in attacks in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and Nigeria.

“Over the past decade, we’ve had no mass casualties here, and that’s not by accident,” he added.

He also invoked 9/11 as the key justification for spying programs, which have infiltrated data held by Internet companies, intercepted online and telephone communications of foreigners and, very likely, some Americans, and tapped the phones of world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

“You know, every one of us remembers 9/11,” he said. “You remember where you were, what was going on, what happened when the first plane hit, what was going on when the second plane hit. It changed our lives.”

The 9/11 soundbite is on a list of key talking points issued by the NSA to justify its surveillance efforts, as revealed by al-Jazeera on Wednesday.

Alexander also went out of his way to disparage NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and the media, both of whom he accused of hurting the country and increasing the likelihood of more terrorist attacks on US soil.

“The person who stole this data was an IT person, not an intelligence professional,” he said of Snowden, who gathered and leaked materials from the NSA before leaving his contracting job and fleeing the United States. Just as an IT person in a hospital should not advise a doctor on how to do surgery, Alexander said, it’s inappropriate to view Snowden as an intelligence expert.

He also said that the media, in cahoots with Snowden, are releasing stories in such a way as to cause maximum damage to the NSA. These people are motivated by money but are trying to look nobel while they’re doing it, he said.

Alexander had kinder words for how his agency operates. “This country does a great job in providing oversight to this whole program and ensuring that we get the intelligence we need in a lawful manner,” he said. “It’s absolutely superb.”

He asked rhetorically which other countries go to such lengths to oversee their surveillance activities, before adding another couple of superlatives: “It’s unparalleled. It’s phenomenal.”

Earlier, he said that, in order to protect civil liberties and privacy, NSA agents have to go through “significant training” before they’re given access to data belonging to Americans. The training involves four courses and tests.

The bottom line, he suggested, is that the NSA is beyond reproach. Looking back on the last five months of leaks and news reports about the agency’s programs, he has concluded: “There is nothing that anyone at NSA or Cyber Command has done wrong.”

The most significant challenge to Alexander arose in a Q&A session, during which former ambassador to Romania James Rosapepe, who is now a Democratic state senator in Maryland, asked the NSA chief what “national security justification” there was to spy on “democratically elected leaders and private businesses.”

Deflecting the question with an attempt at humor, Alexander replied that policymakers, not intelligence agencies, come up with the requirements for surveillance activities. “One of those groups would have been – let me think… hold on… Oh! Ambassadors.” The crowd laughed, but Rosapepe pressed on and extracted a concession from Alexander that partnerships with other nations could be more effective in fighting terrorism than data collection.

“Those partnerships have greater value than some of the collection, and we ought to look at it like that,” Alexander said.

Alexander is expected to step down from his role in the coming months.

[Image Credit: gruntzooki on Flickr]