5 Disturbing Takeaways from NSA Chief Keith Alexander's Hearings Today

The public portion of Tuesday's House Intelligence Committee hearing with NSA chief Keith Alexander, along with other intelligence officials, has proven one thing: House oversight of intelligence activities is, if anything, less rigorous than the senate's.  

What we've learned:

1. NSA chief Alexander says that the top secret surveillance programs have foiled more than 50 terrorist plots since 9/11. But we don't know yet from the first round of questioning whether any of those plots could have been foiled by legal, constitutional, regular intelligence. The officials have also not been asked about the assertion of security experts that the programs played a minor role. For example, in one of the key cases they highlight—would-be New Yorksubway bomber Najibullah Zazi in 2009—old-fashioned intelligence led to his arrest.

2. No one among intelligence leadership thinks that the FISA court is just a rubber stamp. The fact that the court hasn't rejected a single application, out of some 4,000, in the past two years didn't come up.

3. There are around 1,000 system administrators, like Edward Snowden, who have access to the same information as him. The majority of them are contractors.

4. Not everything discussed so far has been useless. Some of it has been downright disturbing. For example, regarding PRISM, the Internet surveillance program:

  • Confirmed: NSA Analyst doesn't need a separate court order to query database. Analysts can decide what is "reasonably suspicious."
    — @EFFLive
    That means NSA analysts get to decide and act unilaterally to extract collected information. Also, this:
    Confirmed, no court review of individual queries. Rest of the checks are inside the DOJ — this is not oversight!
    — @EFFLive
    The FISA court that totally isn't a rubberstamp isn't even rubberstamping individual queries.
  • 5. NSA chief Alexander says that he's never seen an NSA analyst who has that authority do anything wrong. He has a short memory apparently having completely forgotten the time an analyst illegally rooted around in Bill Clinton's email.

Thus far, the most significant revelation from this hearing is that we don't need to worry because there is totally oversight, from a congress that intelligence officials obviously feel no compunction about lying to and from a court that will give the NSA whatever it wants.

9:43 AM PT: Rep. Jim Himes (D-CT) did follow up with a question about how critical the programs were to those 50 cases. The upshot in answer to that:

So: 7 years of collecting every American's records has "contributed" to maybe 10 investigations, no claim that contribution essential.
— @normative

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