Last week, we reported some details on the National Security Agency’s new data center being built in Utah and some insider perspective on the agency’s alleged domestic spying capabilities. Now, Wired reports, NSA chief General Keith Alexander is denying the agency’s ability to spy on American citizens, refuting content in Wired’s original article on the data center and related stories published in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and USA Today.
Wired reports that Alexander spoke in testimony before the House Armed Services subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities on Tuesday where he stated that the NSA did not have the capability to monitor the communications of citizens in the United States without a warrant. Wired has more:
Congressman Hank Johnson, a Georgia Democrat, asked Alexander whether the NSA could, at the direction of Dick Cheney, identify people who sent e-mails making fun of his inability to hunt in order to waterboard them.
Alexander said “No,” adding that the “NSA does not have the ability to do that in the United States.” Elaborating, Alexander added: “We don’t have the technical insights in the United States. In other words, you have to have [...] some way of doing that either by going to a service provider with a warrant or you have to be collecting in that area. We’re not authorized to do that, nor do we have the equipment in the United States to collect that kind of information.”
[He said] the NSA did not have the capability to monitor, inside the United States, Americans’ text messages, phone calls and e-mails. He added that if the NSA were to target an American, the FBI would take the lead and fill out the paperwork. (That’s an odd statement, since the process for targeting an American by the intelligence services is for the NSA to fill out the paperwork, submit it to the Justice Department and then send it to a secret court, according to statements by former Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell.)
Watch Alexander’s exchange in the subcommittee hearing:
Alexander was asked about Wired’s piece and he clarifies stating that if the question being asked is “Are we gathering all information in the United States? No, that is not correct.” Johnson calls up several accusations made in Wired’s piece, including if the NSA routinely intercepts American’s emails, to which Alexander answered “No.”
Wired’s Threat Level remains skeptical of Alexander’s statement saying “heads of the intelligence service have a long tradition of misspeaking or telling untruths that advance their agenda.” It cites George W. Bush saying there was no warrantless wiretapping after 9/11 on citizens, which was later shown to be untrue.
On his blog the Garnet Spy, Charlie Speight, who worked for the Department of Defense for 35 years, writes that James Bamford — author of the original piece published in Wired with details of NSA’s alleged domestic spying capability from ex-employees — may have an agenda of his own to serve:
James Bamford has created a cottage industry of taking a few corroborated facts about NSA, mixing it with statements by an exceptionally few former agency employees and turning out a plot that fits snugly around his own agenda.
I can’t speak to the motivations of those few employees Bamford quotes, though I know some of the things attributed to them are not cut of whole cloth. Bamford’s motive is hardly complicated; money. The truth is that, unlike Hollywood portrayals and the uninformed fiction of novelists (and James Bamford) cryptologic work is boring for those not involved in it. NSA has no black helicopters or Matrix-like agents stalking the citizenry and making people disappear. There’s no subversive hacking into home computers looking for a 12-year old math prodigy.
Speight writes that it is “absurd” to think NSA is monitoring your calls or activity on Facebook. He asks why the agency would spend its time collecting and listening/reading about “people sharing recipes, crying about being dumped, getting directions to the doctor’s office, complaining about teachers (or bosses or neighbors or family members or the preacher or the coach…), giving opinions about movies or books or restaurants.” Speight thinks the purpose for the massive data center being built in Bluffdale, Utah, is simple — and it’s mentioned in Bamford’s own piece:
It needs that capacity because, according to a recent report by Cisco, global Internet traffic will quadruple from 2010 to 2015, reaching 966 exabytes per year. (A million exabytes equal a yottabyte.) In terms of scale, Eric Schmidt, Google’s former CEO, once estimated that the total of all human knowledge created from the dawn of man to 2003 totaled 5 exabytes. And the data flow shows no sign of slowing. In 2011 more than 2 billion of the world’s 6.9 billion people were connected to the Internet. By 2015, market research firm IDC estimates, there will be 2.7 billion users. Thus, the NSA’s need for a 1-million-square-foot data storehouse.
Speight doesn’t deny that the agency has the job of “finding adversary communications in a gigantic volume of traffic.” Speight, who accused the Blaze and others of “[proliferating] the hysteria about ‘Big Brother’ as it pertains to NSA” by publishing information about the potential for domestic spying, states that there are more serious threats to privacy in everyday cybersecurity issues.