The Strangest Interview Yet With the Outgoing Head of the NSA

Appearing on John Oliver's new show, Keith Alexander showed his slipperiness. 

On network television, broadcasters tend to be very deferential when interviewing U.S. officials. This is especially true if they're wearing military dress. 

In contrast, comedians who appear on fake news programs affect an adversarial, intentionally disrespectful persona for laughs. And sometimes, as in John Oliver's interview with outgoing NSA head Keith Alexander, the result is a U.S. official getting called on his slipperiness in a way that would never happen on more "serious" programs.

Here's the video:

The whole thing is worth watching. I'd like to flag a couple of exchanges in particular:

John Oliver: Do you think that the NSA is suffering from a perception problem with the American people at the moment, bearing in mind that the answer to that is yes?

Keith Alexander: Absolutely. you know, the first assumption is that you're collecting on the American people. And therein lies the problem. Because the reality is, the target is not the American people.

NSA watchers have seen this evasion a million times. Say that the "target" isn't the American people, knowing most listeners will take that to mean that the NSA is spying on the private communications of foreigners or terrorists, not regular Americans.

Oliver uses comedic license when calling him on it:

The target is not the American people. But it seems that too often, you miss the target, and you hit the American person standing next to them going, "Whoa!"

Actually, it's even worse than that. It's as if the NSA identifies its target, throws a net over him, and that net also happens to snag millions of innocent Americans. But they weren't the target!

Alexander replies:

But you see, we're not just out there gathering U.S. communications, listening to their phone calls, or collecting their emails. But that's the first thing that people jump to. 

Let's go to the New York Times:

The N.S.A. is not just intercepting the communications of Americans who are in direct contact with foreigners targeted overseas, a practice that government officials have openly acknowledged. It is also casting a far wider net for people who cite information linked to those foreigners, like a little used e-mail address, according to a senior intelligence official.

While it has long been known that the agency conducts extensive computer searches of data it vacuums up overseas, that it is systematically searching—without warrants—through the contents of Americans’ communications that cross the border reveals more about the scale of its secret operations.

And The Guardian:

... the intelligence agencies acknowledge that purely domestic communications can also be inadvertently swept into its databases. That process is known as "incidental collection" in surveillance parlance. 

Later on in the interview, this exchange occurs:

Oliver: How much information do you need to keep Americans safe?

Alexander: That is a tough question. I don't know the answer to that. Here's what I do know. Look at the last 12 years, 13 years since 9/11. We've had a tremendous and remarkable record. That wasn't by accident.

We could also look at terrorist attacks in the United States between 1789 and 1989, long before the NSA had the capability to monitor so much of our private communications. That seemed to work out okay too.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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