The NSA Scrambles to Defend Its Surveillance Tools

NSA chief Keith Alexander is scrambling to bolster support for his agency's ability to collect massive amounts of data on phone calls under the Patriot Act — now under fire from a proposal to gut any funding to do so.

This article is from the archive of our partner .

National Security Agency chief Keith Alexander is scrambling to bolster support for his agency's (recently renewed) ability to collect massive amounts of data on phone calls under the Patriot Act. The Huffington Post reports that Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland has issued an invitation to members of Congress to join Alexander for a briefing on the NSA's activity, meant as a response to an effort to cut funding for it.

The irony is that Alexander didn't see this coming. For weeks, various policy proposals have been floating around Capitol Hill seeking to reform or repeal the scope of the agency's surveillance efforts. The urgency of Ruppersberger's request was spurred by the House Rules Committee's somewhat surprising decision to advancing a measure from Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan. That proposal would amend a defense spending bill to cut any funding that would be used for the collection of phone metadata.

As the National Journal reported earlier this week, the proposal from Amash is part of his unusual-for-a-Republican strategy of building a reputation in opposition to the defense infrastructure. Amash, who is considering a run for the Senate, has been deliberate about establishing his credentials as a libertarian, a better label for an elected official in a state that went for President Obama by ten points. If his measure went into effect, it's not clear what the implications would be. As we've reported before, the technical requirements for storing call information on a daily basis are massive and costly.

It's clear what Alexander will say in his agency's defense. In an interview at a conference on Monday, he claimed that the leak that brought the metadata collection to light has already damaged the agency, as NBC News reports.

"We have concrete proof that they have already, terrorists groups and others, are taking action, making changes, and it's going to make our job tougher," said Gen. Keith Alexander, in an interview at the Aspen Security Conference in Colorado. …

Alexander said the telephone and internet surveillance programs revealed in Snowden's leaks were court-approved but kept secret for a valid reason.

"The purpose of these programs, and the reason we use secrecy, is not to hide from the American people, not to hide it from you, but to hide it from those who walk among you who are trying to kill you."

Alexander's agency has done this tour before, as Reuters' Jack Shafer noted last month. In June, NSA representatives went from news outlet to news outlet, making the claim that the agency's efforts were compromised by the revelation of their existence. For now, while information about the programs is still classified, it's impossible to evaluate the accuracy of Alexander's claim (which we've also noted in the past).

Of course, there's a difference between revealing the program and defunding it. The bar for success in this case — not totally deleting the item from the budget — is somewhat lower. He's apparently going to go it alone, though. Missing from the conversation is the agency for which the NSA ostensibly collects that data: The FBI. Eric Holder has not made any recent appeal to Congress to maintain the agency's ability to survey that data, nor has out-going head Robert Mueller.

In the meeting with members of Congress — which is closed to the public — Alexander will also certainly point to the 50 terror events that the national intelligence agencies suggest have been disrupted using NSA surveillance. Of those four or five that are public, only one disruption stems from use of phone metadata. That disruption halted a man who was sending money to a terror group in Somalia.

Despite receiving bipartisan support, the Amash amendment will almost certainly not receive enough votes to pass in the House. Even if it did so, it's unlikely that the Senate would adopt it, and it's less likely that Obama would sign an appropriations bill with that contingency. But this is still a political victory for opponents of government surveillance — Amash in particular — and a significant setback for the NSA.

Photo: Alexander, testifying before Congress last month. (AP)

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.