NSA chief: Surveillance programs protect Americans

3:15 PM, Jun 12, 2013   |    comments
Army Gen. Keith Alexander, commander of the U.S. Cyber Command, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington in 2010. He told a Senate panel today there is no sacrifice between liberty and security.
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WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) -- Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the secret National Security Agency, defended his agency and surveillance programs, saying they helped protect Americans.

"I think what we're doing to protect American citizens here is the right thing," Alexander told members of the Senate Appropriations Committee. "We aren't trying to hide it."

Alexander said he favors providing more transparency so the public can learn more about the programs.

"This is not us doing something under the covers," Alexander said.

Alexander said he was pushing for declassifying as much as possible about the programs to improve transparency. But he said those disclosures had to be weighed against potential damage to national security.

"We want to tell you what we are doing," Alexander said.

In response to questions from Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., Alexander also said he has "great concerns" over how a 29-year-old high school dropout hired as a government contractor was able to gain access to sensitive information.

Alexander said the processes that led to the hiring of Edward Snowden need to be reviewed.

In his prepared remarks, Alexander, who is also head of the military's Cyber Command, said that securing cyber space can be done without violating individual's privacy rights.

"Everything depends on trust," Alexander's remarks said. "We do not see a tradeoff between security and liberty."

Wednesday was Alexander's first public appearance since Snowden leaked details of a secret government program to collect phone and Internet data

In the prepared statement Alexander did not mention the leak, which has touched off a nationwide debate over privacy and national security.

But he addressed broadly the issue of balancing privacy and national security. "We operate in a way that ensures we keep the trust of the American people because that trust is a sacred requirement," he said.

A NSA program to collect phone and Internet data has come under close scrutiny after Snowden leaked information about the program to The Guardian and The Washington Post.

STORY: NSA chief is key administration voice on cyber issues

The NSA is responsible for electronic intelligence gathering and the mission of the Pentagon's Cyber Command is to help protect the nation's infrastructure from cyber attack and develop capabilities to strike back.

In testimony Alexander highlighted the vulnerabilities of the nation's infrastructure to cyber attacks.

The issue was highlighted in a recent meeting between President Obama recently met with Chinese President Xi Jinping to discuss the issue. China has been linked to frequent cyber attacks on U.S. companies.

"On a scale of one to 10, with 10 being strongly defended, our critical infrastructure's preparedness to withstand a destructive cyber attack is about a three based on my experience," Alexander's statement said.

Alexander said the United States was both a target of cyber attacks and a victim of collateral damage.

"Networks and websites owned by Americans and located here have endured intentional, state sponsored attacks, and some have incurred degradation and disruption because they happened to be along the route to another state's overseas targets," he said.

Spending on cyber operations is one of the few areas in the Pentagon that will increase in coming years. The Pentagon has requested $4.6 billion for cyber security expenses next year, up from $3.9 billion this fiscal year. The Pentagon expects to spend $23 billion on cyber in the next five years.

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