At a congressional hearing yesterday, National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander offered his views about the role of massive domestic surveillance in a free society. Unsurprisingly, he voiced support for keeping up with the controversial and rights-compromising work conducted by his agency.
The four-star general came before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which was discussing the USA FREEDOM Act. The bill aims to end bulk meta-data collection and establish checks on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) court. Alexander issued grave warnings about the dangers such a law would pose to America, and even attempted to elicit some sympathy for the NSA's methods. USA Today reports:
"There is no other way to connect the dots," Alexander told the Senate Judiciary Committee in a renewed defense of NSA surveillance programs whose details were disclosed this year by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. "We cannot go back to a pre-9/11 moment."
Alexander said the national security threat has been mounting in recent months, and the "crisis in the Middle East is growing."
"Taking these programs off the table is not the thing to do," Alexander said.
It isn't Alexander's first time defending the agency's domestic spying. But it is interesting, because for years he made many public claims (some of which have been called into question) to give the impression that no such surveillance of American citizens happened on his watch.
Deputy Attorney General James Cole also testified. He expressed doubt about whether the bill would have any impact. Significantly, The Guardian points out that this "was the first time the NSA or its allies have suggested that its dragnets on American phone data might not be stopped even if Leahy's bill… passes through Congress."
Several senators criticized the NSA's action during the hearing. Judiciary Committee Chairman and sponsor of the USA FREEDOM Act, Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), questioned, "Do we really need to collect so much data on Americans? Just simply because you can do something, does it make sense to do it?"
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said recent disclosures about the scope of the NSA's data collection "call into serious question whether the law and other safeguards currently in place strike the right balance between protecting our civil liberties and our national security."
Legislators aren't the only ones pushing for greater constraint on the NSA. As Reason's Ronald Bailey highlights, major internet companies recently wrote an open letter to President Obama calling for reforms.