Administration officials defended the government's surveillance programs before the the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence today.
Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency, Sean Joyce, deputy director of the FBI and James Cole, deputy attorney general, raked over some of the same ground we've been hearing about since The Guardian and The Washington Post released information about a secret NSA program that gathers a vast amount of information about American's electronic activities.
What we did get is more detail. For example Alexander said these programs — including PRISM, which nabs Internet content from foreigners — have helped foil more than 50 terrorism plots and Cole gave a lengthy explanation of the legal system surrounding these programs.
Like we've done for these hearings in the past, we've pulled out three exchanges that, while dense and sometimes boring, will help you understand these programs. Here they are:
-- Four Foiled Plots: Joyce gave detailed information about four plots that were foiled with the help of these programs — among them a plot to bomb the New York Stock Exchange:
-- Yes Or No: The chairman of the committee, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), went through a series of yes or no questions for Alexander. (If you remember, it was this kind of exchange that turned controversial for Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.) But Alexander said, among other things, that the NSA is not "on private companies' servers" and cannot read Americans' emails:
-- A Legal Explanation: This is an extremely long piece of audio, but it's important. If you don't have time to listen to the 20 minutes, we'll highlight a few points: Cole believes the government has done a good job at balancing national security with the Constitutional guarantee to privacy; the programs have oversight by all three branches of government; in the phone program, the U.S. doesn't collect content, only meta-data, which isn't protected under the Fourth Amendment; under section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the U.S. does collect content, but it only does so for "non-U.S. persons who are located outside the USA." Essentially, what Cole is describing here is the FISC decision that has not been made public:
We've covered some of this reasoning in a previous post.
It's also worth noting that Edward Snowden, who leaked the documents that got this story rolling, disagrees with that assessment. He has said that policy alone is not sufficient to stop analysts from accessing information they are not legally allowed to look at.