Ex-NSA head charges press with ‘snipe hunting’

Public outrage at American surveillance operations is a case of “snipe hunting,” according to the former head of the National Security Agency. 

Gen. Keith Alexander said on Thursday that when he was 7 years old, his older brothers played a gag on him by convincing him to go hunting for the fictional animal.

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“I was convinced they were collecting snipes,” he said, even though the animal never existed.

“That’s what the media is doing on this,” he said, noting that outside analysts and courts have repeatedly determined that agents at the NSA never abused their legal authority.

“We cannot sit back, and we cannot let snipe hunting drive this debate. It has to be facts,” he added. “And no one has found anybody doing anything wrong with it.”

Federal courts, including the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court have repeatedly upheld the legality of the NSA’s contested surveillance operations, which were exposed by former contractor Edward Snowden last year. Even the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which this year said that the NSA’s collection of phone records was illegal, said that it has not found any instances of agency officials abusing their authority.

Still, privacy and civil liberties advocates say that the agency’s secret reinterpretation of the law is troubling, and a judge last year called the effort “almost Orwellian.”

The NSA is not staying true to the spirit of the law, critics argue, even if it is following the letter.

Alexander, who was the spy agency’s longest-serving leader before stepping down earlier this year, used a curse word to criticize the news media’s focus on the potential privacy violations of the operations instead of the efforts to stop terrorists.

“Now if we want to have a debate, let’s have a debate,” he said, “but let’s have a debate based on all the facts that we put on the table,” starting with the increase in deaths from terrorism in recent years.