Today we got a rare glimpse into the inner-workings of National Security Agency programs that have been disclosed over the last few weeks. The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence held a hearing today where the Director of the National Security Agency, General Keith Alexander, testified. Other intelligence officials appeared at the hearing as well to explain, as best they could disclose, how these programs work.
Here are some of the important facts that we learned today during this fascinating hearing.
General Alexander disclosed that the NSA's surveillance program has stopped over 50 terrorist plots around the world and at least 10 within the United States since 9/11.
We heard actual examples of various plots that had been foiled thanks to the NSA surveillance programs. Two of those plots include the 2009 bombing plot of Najibullah Zazi to use backpacks to blowup the NYC subway and extremists in Yemen who were aiding in a plot to blow up the New York Stock Exchange.
General Alexander confirmed that the NSA cannot target any US citizen anywhere in the world without individualized court orders.
NSA Deputy Director John Inglis says that phone numbers being tracked by the NSA are not tied to names or addresses. The only thing that can be seen is the number, when the call occurred and how long it lasted. That's it. When General Alexander was asked if someone at the NSA could flip a switch and read Americans' emails or listen to their conversations, Alexander says it cannot.
According to NSA Deputy Director John Inglis, meta-data that is collected in these programs must be destroyed after five years.
According to Deputy Attorney General James Cole, the Fourth Amendment does not apply to basic phone records, meaning that there is a legal precedent and no reasonable expectation of privacy when it comes to the collection of meta-data records.
According to the General Council for DNI, Bob Litt, there is a rigorous process that goes into requests made to FISA courts, which should mitigate our suspicions that almost 100% of FISA requests are then approved by the court. But he would not commit to making FISA court opinions public.
Litt assured us that there is an extensive oversight process by which analysts must comply in order to make sure they are acting within established parameters. We also learned that there is some sort of civil liberties officer whose job it is to make sure that NSA activity does not infringe upon our Constitutional rights.
In light of Snowden revealing this information, Litt says: "Because this information has been made public, we run the risk of losing these collection capabilities." That sentiment seemed to be echoed throughout the hearing – A fear that disclosure will aid our enemies and make it more difficult to use this technology to foil future plots.
Last night Barack Obama went on PBS to assure us that “if you are a U.S. person, the NSA cannot listen to your telephone calls, and the NSA cannot target your emails” and has not done so. He also defended the program as “transparent.”
So after hearing from intelligence officials today, and after the reassurances from Obama in recent days, do you feel any better about the program and the collection of data that is taking place in the name of national security? Does incite into the process help ease any fears of big government, Big Brother spying on every American? I'm not so sure it will be that easy to convince the American people.