National Security
3:28 pm
Thu June 13, 2013

NSA Director Briefs Senators on Surveillance Programs

Originally published on Thu June 13, 2013 4:35 pm

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

Today on Capitol Hill, the director of National Intelligence, the head of the National Security Agency and other intelligence officials briefed the Senate. They talked about the two surveillance programs that were leaked to the media recently.

NPR's Ailsa Chang is with us now to talk more about this meeting. And, Ailsa, you had a chance to talk to some senators leaving the briefing. How much could they tell you?

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Well, there were several senators who said they felt more comfortable about the programs after the briefing, like Mike Johanns of Nebraska, who expressed deep concerns yesterday. But today, he said he had greater confidence in the checks and balances around the programs, the oversight. Senators also said that General Keith Alexander, the head of the National Security Agency, gave them an idea of how many attacks have been prevented because of these surveillance programs.

And according to Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Alexander is going to releasing more information about those attacks.

SENATOR DIANNE FEINSTEIN: What he wants to give us are the cases where this has stopped a terrorist attack, both here and in other places. And he wants to be exact about the detail. So we should have that Monday.

CHANG: She did say the number of attacks prevented is, quote, "more than you think."

CORNISH: Ailsa, that list of terrorism attacks that officials say were prevented by these surveillance programs, is Keith Alexander going to say which ones were specifically prevented by that collection of phone records or which ones were prevented by the Internet monitoring?

CHANG: Well, yesterday, Alexander suggested he was going to try to do that, but he also said segregating the cases is tricky because there are cases that were first tipped off through the Internet monitoring - that's the PRISM program - and then phone records were used to confirm and deepen those investigations. Here's how Alexander put it yesterday in an open committee hearing.

GENERAL KEITH ALEXANDER: These authorities complement each other in helping us identify different terrorist actions and help disrupt them. They complement each other. So what you're asking me is to state unequivocally that A or B contributed solely to that. The reality is they work together.

CHANG: He brought up the case of Najibullah Zazi, that's the Colorado man who was planning suicide bomb attacks in the New York City subway system. Alexander said they first picked up on some Internet communication between Zazi and people overseas - again, that's the PRISM program - and then they looked at Zazi's phone records to figure out who else he was communicating with in New York.

CORNISH: Now, was there any word on what other information about the programs are potentially getting declassified for the American public?

CHANG: It's not clear. It seems Alexander is struggling with this question of what exactly to declassify for the public. You know, the cat's out of the bag now on these two surveillance programs. People want answers. He says he wants to give people answers, but here's how he described his dilemma yesterday.

ALEXANDER: I would rather take a public beating and people think I'm hiding something than to jeopardize the security of this country. Now, having said that, some of this is out there and it is right that we have that debate. And so what makes sense to put out there so that people will know that what we're doing is right, we ought to do that.

CHANG: The recurring theme people are hitting on this past week is that it's time to have a fresh, new public debate about how best to balance safety with privacy. You know, we're more than 10 years out after 9/11. Maybe the moment is ripe to revisit that issue. And maybe it will mean new national security legislation to readjust that balance.

CORNISH: NPR's Ailsa Chang speaking with us from Capitol Hill. Ailsa, thank you.

CHANG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.