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NSA chief Alexander asks hackers to help ‘defend the country’

National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander on Wednesday defended his agency’s secret surveillance programs at a cybersecurity conference and called on hackers to help “defend the country.”

“We stand for freedom,” said Alexander at the Black Hat cybersecurity meeting in Las Vegas, a gathering of many of the world’s top hackers and computer security experts, according to reports. “Help us to defend the country and develop a better solution.”

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Alexander, though, faced a difficult crowd, with many in the audience shouting questions and criticisms.

One heckler shouted that Alexander should “read the Constitution.” The NSA chief responded “I have, so should you,” reported Reuters.

Alexander’s appearance comes as the administration launches a vigorous defense of the agency’s phone and Internet spying programs, which were disclosed last month after former government contractor Edward Snowden leaked classified information.

The programs have sparked fierce criticism from civil libertarians and led many in Congress to demand greater oversight on the nation’s surveillance network.

The administration on Wednesday declassified a number of documents detailing the NSA’s phone data collection to address lawmaker concerns. President Obama is also slated to meet with lawmakers on Thursday to discuss the  surveillance programs, with Alexander heading back to Capitol Hill to deliver a classified briefing to the House. 

Defenders of the programs say that adequate safeguards are in place to protect Americans’ privacy rights and that the surveillance has saved lives. 

Alexander dismissed suggestions that NSA analysts had unfettered access to the communications of Americans.

“We get all these allegations of what they could be doing,” said Alexander, adding that congressional inquiries had found “no times” when NSA analysts abused their discretion.

In his remarks, Alexander also described the agency's employees as “noble folks” and said that 20 had died supporting counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

He said that the reputation of the NSA was being “tarnished because all the facts aren’t on the table.”

But the administration’s more open approach to explaining and defending the programs is unlikely to end the debate over the nation’s surveillance programs.

On Wednesday the Guardian newspaper published more revelations from documents leaked by Snowden, including information on a program that allegedly allows the government real time access to emails and chats without a warrant.

Critics of the NSA have also been emboldened when the House last week narrowly defeated a measure to block NSA funding for phone surveillance of Americans, and have pledged to renew their efforts.