FORT MEADE, Md. — The director of the National Security Agency, General Keith B. Alexander, said in an interview that to prevent terrorist attacks he saw no effective alternative to the NSA’s bulk collection of telephone and other electronic metadata from Americans.
But he acknowledged that his agency now faces an entirely new reality, and the possibility of congressional restrictions, after revelations about its operations at home and abroad.
While offering a detailed defense of his agency’s work, Alexander said the broader lesson of the controversy over disclosures of secret NSA surveillance missions was that he and other top officials have to be more open in explaining the agency’s role, especially as it expands its mission into cyberoffense and cyberdefense.
“Given where we are and all the issues that are on the table, I do feel it’s important to have a public, transparent discussion on cyber so that the American people know what’s going on,” Alexander said. “And in order to have that, they need to understand the truth about what’s going on.”
Alexander, a career Army intelligence officer who also serves as head of the military’s Cyber Command, has become the public face of the secret — and, to many, unwarranted — government collection of records about personal communications in the name of national security. He has given a number of speeches in recent weeks to counter a highly negative portrayal of the NSA’s work, but the 90-minute interview was his most extensive personal statement on the issue to date.
Speaking at the agency’s heavily guarded headquarters, Alexander acknowledged that his agency had stumbled in responding to the revelations by Edward J. Snowden, the contractor who stole thousands of documents about the NSA’s most secret programs.
But Alexander insisted that the chief problem was a public misunderstanding about what information the agency collects — and what it does not — not the programs themselves.
“The way we’ve explained it to the American people has gotten them so riled up that nobody told them the facts of the program and the controls that go around it,” he added.
But Alexander was firm in saying that the disclosures had allowed adversaries, whether foreign governments or terrorist organizations, to learn how to avoid detection by American intelligence and had caused “significant and irreversible damage” to national security.
Alexander said that he was extremely sensitive to the power of the software tools and electronic weapons being developed by the United States for surveillance and computer-network warfare, and that he set a very high bar for when the nation should use these powerful cybertools for offensive purposes.
“I see no reason to use offensive tools unless you’re defending the country or in a state of war, or you want to achieve some really important thing for the good of the nation and others,” he said.
Those comments were prompted by a document in the Snowden trove that said the United States conducted more than 200 offensive cyberattacks in 2011 alone.
But US officials say that in reality only a handful of attacks have been carried out. They say the erroneous estimate reflected an inaccurate grouping of other electronic missions.
But Alexander would not discuss any specific cases in which the United States had used those weapons, including the best-known example: its years-long attack on Iran’s nuclear enrichment facility at Natanz.
To critics of President Obama’s administration, that decision made it easier for China, Iran and other nations to justify their own use of cyberweapons.