Top spook asks public for backup

The director of the National Security Agency on Wednesday pleaded for public help in defending his agency’s powers. 

Gen. Keith Alexander’s comments come as part of a concerted effort by the administration to turn around negative public perception about the NSA in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about spying at the beginning of the summer.

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The day before he is to begin a series of public hearings on Capitol Hill, Alexander said in a speech at the National Press Club: “We need your help.

“The American people have to weigh in and help us get the tools we need to defend this country,” Alexander said. 

Public opinion polls show some of the deepest skepticism about the NSA’s surveillance since before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. About 60 percent of Americans oppose the agency’s collection of phone call and Internet data, according to a Sept. 10 poll by The Associated Press/NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Chris Finan, a former Obama administration cybersecurity official, said in an interview that the administration has become more aggressive about defending the NSA.

“Initially, they took a more reactive approach and would only respond when directly asked things,” Finan said. “And now, we’re seeing the beginning of them being more proactive in explaining and justifying [the programs.]”

President Obama announced a series of steps last month to bolster public confidence in the government’s surveillance powers. He emphasized that the programs are critical for protecting national security, but did acknowledge that the administration would have to be more transparent about the programs. 

“It’s not enough for me, as president, to have confidence in these programs,” he said. “The American people need to have confidence in them as well.”

In the weeks following the president’s speech, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, released thousands of pages of agency documents and court opinions related to the surveillance programs. 

The government even launched a Tumblr blog, “IC [intelligence community] on the Record,” to help the public access documents. 

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The public relations push comes as Congress is taking steps toward reining in the NSA’s powers. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) gave a speech on Tuesday outlining his plans to toughen privacy protections and end the agency’s bulk collection of domestic phone records.

Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) unveiled their own legislation on Wednesday afternoon for clamping down on the NSA. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) has also said additional protections are necessary.

In July, the House fell just seven votes short of approving a measure from Reps. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) and John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) to defund the NSA’s phone record program.

The transparency efforts could be part of the administration’s opening negotiations with Congress to avoid legislation that officials fear would harm national security. 

Obama has said he is open to certain legislative changes to strengthen transparency and oversight, but many lawmakers are pushing for more radical changes.

“There is a great amount of political will on the Hill to go a lot further,” Finan said. “They have to assume given the Amash-Conyers vote and how close that was that something will be legislated.”

It hasn’t helped the administration’s case that news stories about the NSA have continued to trickle out every few weeks.

In his speech, Alexander blasted media misinformation about his agency, and argued that the NSA is careful to protect privacy rights. He warned that if Congress hampers the agency’s ability to gather information, it could make it easier for terrorist attacks in the United States similar to last week’s massacre in a mall in Nairobi, Kenya. 

“If you take those [surveillance powers] away, think about the last week and what will happen in the future,” Alexander said. “If you think it’s bad now, wait until you get some of those things that happened in Nairobi.” 

He argued that the agency’s controversial phone data collection program is crucial for “connecting the dots” and foiling terrorist attacks. 

Michelle Richardson, a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union, argued that the government’s campaign is unlikely to persuade the public if they only focus on hyping fears about terrorism.

“They’re going to have to really come up with some concrete arguments before people are going to believe them,” Richardson said. “We welcome the debate, but we hope it’s meaningful and not just fear-mongering.”

She said only substantive restrictions to the NSA’s surveillance powers will satisfy privacy advocates.