NSA speaks out on Snowden, spying

Posted: December 16, 2013 in Constitution, media, Police State, terrorism, World News

The NSA gives unprecedented access to the agency’s HQ and, for the first time, explains what it does and what it says it doesn’t do: spy on Americans

  • 2013 Dec 16
  • Correspondent John Miller

The following is a script from “Inside the NSA” which aired on Dec. 15, 2013. John Miller is the correspondent. Ira Rosen and Gabrielle Schonder, producers.

No U.S. intelligence agency has ever been under the kind of pressure being faced by the National Security Agency after details of some of its most secret programs were leaked by contractor Edward Snowden. Perhaps because of that pressure the agency gave 60 Minutes unprecedented access to NSA headquarters where we were able to speak to employees who have never spoken publicly before.

Full disclosure, I once worked in the office of the director of National Intelligence where I saw firsthand how secretly the NSA operates. It is often said NSA stands for “never say anything,” but tonight the agency breaks with that tradition to address serious questions about whether the NSA delves too far into the lives of Americans.


Gen. Keith Alexander: The fact is, we’re not collecting everybody’s email, we’re not collecting everybody’s phone things, we’re not listening to that. Our job is foreign intelligence and we’re very good at that.

The man in charge is Keith Alexander, a four-star Army general who leads the NSA and U.S. Cyber Command. 

John Miller: There is a perception out there that the NSA is widely collecting the content of the phone calls of Americans. Is that true?

“The fact is, we’re not collecting everybody’s email, we’re not collecting everybody’s phone things, we’re not listening to that. Our job is foreign intelligence and we’re very good at that.”

Gen. Keith Alexander: No, that’s not true. NSA can only target the communications of a U.S. person with a probable cause finding under specific court order. Today, we have less than 60 authorizations on specific persons to do that.

John Miller: The NSA as we sit here right now is listening to a universe of 50 or 60 people that would be considered U.S. persons?

Gen. Keith Alexander: Less than 60 people globally who are considered U.S. persons.

But the NSA doesn’t need a court order to spy on foreigners, from its heavily protected headquarters in Fort Meade, Md., it collects a mind-numbing amount of data from phones and the Internet. They sort through it all looking for clues to terrorist plots, and intelligence on the intentions of foreign governments. To do all that they use a network of supercomputers that use more power than most mid-sized cities.

Gen. Alexander agreed to talk to us because he believes, the NSA has not told its story well.

Gen. Keith Alexander: “We need to help the American people understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.” And to put it simply, we’re doing two things: We’re defending this country from future terrorist attacks and we’re defending our civil liberties and privacy. There’s no reason that we would listen to the phone calls of Americans. There’s no intelligence value in that. There’s no reason that we’d want to read their email. There is no intelligence value in that.

What they are doing is collecting the phone records of more than 300 million Americans.

John Miller: Then why do you need all of those phone records?

Gen. Keith Alexander: How do you know when the bad guy who’s using those same communications that my daughters use, is in the United States trying to do something bad? The least intrusive way of doing that is metadata.

Metadata has become one of the most important tools in the NSA’s arsenal. Metadata is the digital information on the number dialed, the time and date, and the frequency of the calls.  We wanted to see how metadata was used at the NSA.  Analyst Stephen Benitez showed us a technique known as “call chaining” used to develop targets for electronic surveillance in a pirate network based in Somalia.

Stephen Benitez: As you see here, I’m only allowed to chain on anything that I’ve been trained on and that I have access to. Add our known pirate. And we chain him out. 

John Miller: Chain him out, for the audience, means what?

Stephen Benitez: People he’s been in contact to for those 18 days.

Stephen Benitez: One that stands out to me first would be this one here. He’s communicated with our target 12 times.

Stephen Benitez: Now we’re looking at Target B’s contacts.

John Miller: So he’s talking to three or four known pirates?

Stephen Benitez: Correct. These three here. We have direct connection to both Target A and Target B. So we’ll look at him, too, we’ll chain him out. And you see, he’s in communication with lots of known pirates. He might be the missing link that tells us everything.

John Miller: What happens in this space when a number comes up that’s in Dallas?

Stephen Benitez: So If it does come up, normally, you’ll see it as a protected number– and if you don’t have access to it, you won’t be able to look.

If a terrorist is suspected of having contacts inside the United States, the NSA can query a database that contains the metadata of every phone call made in the U.S. going back five years.

John Miller: So you understand then, there might be a little confusion among Americans who read in the newspaper that the N.S.A. has vacuumed up, the records of the telephone calls of every man, woman and child in the United States for a period of years– that sounds like spying on Americans.

Gen. Keith Alexander: Right, and that’s wrong. That’s absolutely wrong.

John Miller: You don’t hear the call?

Gen. Keith Alexander: You don’t hear the call.

John Miller: You don’t see the name.

Gen. Keith Alexander: You don’t see the names.

John Miller: You just see this number, called that number.

Gen. Keith Alexander: The– this number– the “to/from” number, the duration of the call and date/time, that’s all you get. And all we can do is tell the FBI, “That number is talking to somebody who is very bad, you ought to go look at it.”

But privacy advocates argue American’s phone records should not sit in bulk at the NSA, searchable under a blanket court order. They believe the NSA should have to get a separate court order for each number and that the record should stay at the phone company. 

John Miller: You get the bill from whatever the service provider is and you see who it’s calling in America. You don’t need to collect every American’s phone numbers to do that.

Gen. Keith Alexander: Well, the reality is if you go and do a specific one for each, you have to tell the phone companies to keep those call detail records for a certain period of time. So, if you don’t have the data someplace you can’t search it. The other part that’s important, phone companies– different phone companies have different sets of records. And these phone calls may go between different phone companies. If you only go to one company, you’ll see what that phone company has. But you may not see what the other phone company has or the other. So by putting those together, we can see all of that essentially at one time.

John Miller: Before 9/11, did we have this capability?

Gen. Keith Alexander: We did not.

John Miller: Is it a factor? Was it a factor?

Gen. Keith Alexander: I believe it was.

What Gen. Alexander is talking about is that two of the 9/11 hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi were in touch with an al Qaeda safe house in Yemen. The NSA did not know their calls were coming from California, as they would today.

Gen. Keith Alexander: I think this was the factor that allowed Mihdhar to safely conduct his plot from California. We have all the other indicators but no way of understanding that he was in California while others were in Florida and other places.

Edward Snowden revealed another program called “prism.” Which the NSA says is authorized under the foreign intelligence surveillance act, or FISA. Prism is the program the NSA uses to target the Internet communications of terrorists. It has the capability to capture emails, chats, video and photos. But privacy experts believe the NSA’s dragnet for terrorists on the Internet may also be sweeping up information on a lot of Americans.

Gen. Keith Alexander: No. That’s not true. Under FISA, NSA can only target the communications of a U.S. person with a probable cause finding under specific court order.

John Miller: A judge in the FISA court, which is the court that secretly hears the NSA cases and approves or disapproves your requests. Said the NSA systematically transgressed both its own court-appointed limits in bulk Internet data collection programs.

Gen. Keith Alexander: There was nobody willfully or knowingly trying to break the law.

The NSA says their analysts use highly technical systems under increasingly complex legal requirements and that when mistakes are made, they’re human errors, not intentional abuses. The Snowden leaks have challenged the NSA officials to explain programs they never intended to talk about. So how did an obscure contractor and computer specialist, pull off the most damaging breach of secrets in U.S. history?  Few have spent more time thinking about that than Rick Ledgett.

John Miller: How long have you been with the NSA?

Rick Ledgett: For 25 years.

John Miller: How many television interviews have you done?

Rick Ledgett: One, this one.

Ledgett runs the NSA task force doing the damage assessment on the Snowden leaks. And until this interview, the NSA has never discussed the specifics of the extent damage they believe Snowden has done and still could do.


Rick Ledgett and John Miller
CBS News

 John Miller: There’ve been all kinds of figures out there about how much he took, how many documents. We’ve been told 1.7 million.



Rick Ledgett: I wouldn’t dispute that.

John Miller: How is that possible?

Rick Ledgett: So, the people who control that, the access to those machines, are called system administrators and they have passwords that give them the ability to go around those– security measures and that’s what Snowden did.

Edward Snowden worked for the NSA in Hawaii.  Part of his job was to help maintain the NSA’s computers and also move large sets of data between different systems.

John Miller: Did he take everything he had access to, or was he a careful shopper?

Rick Ledgett: He did something that we call– scraping. Where he went out and just went– used tools to scrape information from websites, and put it into a place where he could download it.

John Miller: At some point you then understood the breadth of what was missing and what could be missing?

Rick Ledgett: Yes.

John Miller: Of all the things he took is there anything in there that worries you or concerns you more than anything else?

Rick Ledgett: It’s an exhaustive list of the requirements that have been levied against– against the National Security Agency. And what that gives is, what topics we’re interested in, where our gaps are. But additional information about U.S. capabilities and U.S. gaps is provided as part of that.

John Miller: So, I’m going to assume that there’s one in there about China, and there’s one in there about Iran, and there’s another in there about Russia.

Rick Ledgett: Many more than one.

John Miller: Many more than one?

Rick Ledgett: Yes.

John Miller: How many of those are there?

Rick Ledgett: About 31,000.

John Miller: If those documents fell into their hands? What good would it do them?

Rick Ledgett: It would give them a roadmap of what we know, what we don’t know, and give them– implicitly, a way to– protect their information from the U.S. intelligence community’s view.

John Miller: For an adversary in the intelligence game, that’s a gold mine?

Rick Ledgett: It is the keys to the kingdom.

So far, none of those crucial documents have been leaked. In Hong Kong last June, Snowden claimed that exposing the secret programs of the NSA did not make him a traitor or a hero, but an American.

[Edward Snowden: The public needs to decide whether these programs or policies are right or wrong.]

Snowden who is believed to still have access to a million and a half classified documents he has not leaked. Has been granted temporary asylum in Moscow, which leaves the U.S. with few options.

John Miller: He’s already said, “If I got amnesty I would come back,” given the potential damage to national security, what would your thought on making a deal be?

Rick Ledgett: So, my personal view is, yes, it’s worth having a conversation about. I would need assurances that the remainder of the data could be secured and my bar for those assurances would be very high. It would be more than just an assertion on his part.

John Miller: Is that a unanimous feeling?

Rick Ledgett: It’s not unanimous.

Among those who think making a deal is a bad idea is Ledgett’s boss, Gen. Alexander.

Gen. Keith Alexander: This is analogous to a hostage taker taking 50 people hostage, shooting 10 and then say, “If you give me full amnesty I’ll let the other 40 go.” What do you do?

John Miller: It’s a dilemma.

Gen. Keith Alexander: It is.

John Miller: Do you have a pick?

Gen. Keith Alexander: I do. I think people have to be held accountable for their actions.

Gen. Keith Alexander: Because what we don’t want is the next person to do the same thing, race off to Hong Kong and to Moscow with another set of data knowing they can strike the same deal.

John Miller: This happened on your watch. A 20-something-year-old high school dropout contractor managed to walk out with in essence the crown jewels. Did you offer to resign about the Snowden incident?

Gen. Keith Alexander: Yes.

John Miller: The secretary of Defense, the director of National Intelligence, what did they say?

Gen. Keith Alexander: Well, I offered to resign. And they said, “We don’t see a reason that you should resign. We haven’t found anybody there doing anything wrong. In fact, this could have happened to anybody in the community. And we don’t need you to resign. We need you and deputy director to help work your way through is,” which is what we’re doing. We’ll do everything we can to fix it.

Besides Edward Snowden, Gen. Alexander has growing concerns about a number of increasing threats to the United States, and the NSA’s ability to stop them. That part of the story when we come back.

The Snowden Affair

Inside the NSA, where getting hired requires swearing an oath to your country and signing a vow of secrecy under the penalty of law, the very concept of what Edward Snowden did was hard for many to grasp. Gen. Keith Alexander felt he had a big stake in understanding Snowden, so he and Rick Ledgett who runs the Snowden task force got on a plane to Hawaii. They wanted to see the scene of the crime, Edward Snowden’s desk.


keep reading here.


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