WASHINGTON — A Democratic chairwoman tried in vain to steer a hearing on cybersecurity today away from questions about the NSA scandal as even members of her own party were determined to keep the spotlight on surveillance programs as the agency director sat at the witness table.
In open session, National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander tried to reassure the Senate Appropriations Committee that leaker Edward Snowden overstated the capabilities of the surveillance programs and that the NSA was following the letter of the law.
Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) chided senators in her opening statement to stay on topic. “I understand that these are issues that are very much on the public’s mind and members of the Senate,” she said. “…That’s not today. That’s for another day.”
The first to defy her request was senior Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
“I’ve had a lot of concern about Section 215 of the Patriot Act, Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance, FISA,” Leahy said. “We’ve had a number of comments and proposals in the Judiciary Committee to improve these provisions. But the intelligence community has told us that we obviously don’t have the ability as simple senators to know anything as well as you do, and so they do not need changes, and told they’re critical to our counterterrorism efforts.”
“I think that there should be sunset provisions and we should look at them periodically, and we should actually debate them in a free and open society.”
Saying he wouldn’t go into “whether he contradicted himself in a couple of answers,” Leahy hinted at Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s March testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee in which he told senators that the NSA did “not wittingly” collect data on millions of Americans.
“Has the intelligence community kept track of how many times phone records obtained through section 215 of the Patriot Act were critical to the discovery and disruption of terrorist threats?” the senator asked the NSA chief.
Alexander said he hopes to get those figures within the next week. Leahy noted he couldn’t answer that question for the Intelligence Committee in a briefing yesterday.
“It’s dozens of terrorist events that these have helped prevent, from my perspective,” Alexander said.
“Out of those millions, dozens have been critical?” Leahy said in reference to the volume of phone records being tracked.
“Tomorrow I’ll give as clear as we have, vetted, precisely what we’ve done on each of those,” Alexander said.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who has called Snowden a “traitor,” scheduled a closed-door briefing in the Senate Visitors Center tomorrow so that all senators can participate.
“And the reason that I’m — I want to get this exactly right, senator, is I want the American people to know that we’re being transparent in here,” Alexander continued, quipping that he didn’t want to “get any kicks from behind me” from staffers feeling rushed to compile the report.
The NSA director said he wants to walk through the Boston Marathon bombings with senators to give the perspective of “what we could not do.”
“What the FBI could have done was to have passed on the information to the Boston authorities. They said they did not. That might have been helpful, too,” Leahy responded.
Clapper said this week that he found it “a little ironic that in — several weeks ago, after the Boston bombings, we were accused of not being sufficiently intrusive.”
“We are supposed — we were — we didn’t — we failed to determine the exact tipping point when the brothers self-radicalized. And then it was, we weren’t intrusive enough,” Clapper said. “I don’t mean to be a smart guy here. It’s just that this is emblematic of the serious debate that goes on in this country between the two poles of security and civil liberties and privacy.”
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) thanked Mikulski for bringing cybersecurity “into sharp focus” before promptly veering to the topic of Snowden.
“I trusted, and I still do, that we were hiring the very best, trusting them to not only give us their best in terms of knowledge, but also their loyalty to our country,” Durbin said before rattling off Snowden’s bio as a high school and community college dropout who took a job as a security guard at the NSA in Maryland.