Sen. Mike Johanns questioned the director of the National Security Agency about the depth and breadth of the government’s electronic surveillance program, during a public hearing in Washington of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
General Keith Alexander defended the program, insisting that it protects the civil liberties of Americans while protecting the country by tracking the activity of terrorists. Alexander told the Appropriations Committee the program has thwarted dozens of terrorist attacks.
Johanns pressed Alexander about the reach of the program.
“For example, could you check and see what that person is Googling? Could you check and see who that person is emailing?” Johanns asked Alexander.
“So, there’s two parts of your question here,” Alexander responded. “So, going to the next step, once we identify a person of interest, then it goes to the FBI. The FBI will then look at that and say, ‘What more do we need to now look at that individual themselves.’ So, there are issues and things that they would then look at if passed to them.”
“So the answer to the question is, yes,” Johanns stated.
The line of Johanns’ questioning was interrupted a couple of times by Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski of Maryland who first asked Sen. Diane Feinstein of California, chairwoman of the National Intelligence Committee, to explain portions of the program and then cut off Johanns’ questions to move on to another topic.
The NSA program relies on a section of the Patriot Act that allows law enforcement to collect “business records,” which includes telephone records. The program also gathers “metadata,” such as calls made and taken, use of the Internet and emails sent and received without necessarily listening in on the call or reading the emails. NSA officials say the metadata allows intelligence analysts to decipher patterns. The program casts a wide net, giving the NSA nearly unlimited authority to gather such data.
A 29-year-old NSA contractor, Edward Snowden, revealed the extensive program.
Johanns questioned Alexander about just how much authority he believes he has under the program.
“What I worry about is how far do you believe this authority extends?” Johanns asked.
Alexander insisted the program operates under the oversight of the courts, Congress and the administration.
Johanns also questioned whether Alexander’s role mingles military and political leadership, which America traditionally has kept separate.
“But, it is a very, very concerning role that we find you in, at least, for Mike Johanns.”
Johanns said the American public fears the program could go far beyond what was envisioned in the Patriot Act.
AUDIO: Brent Martin reports [1 min.]
AUDIO: Sen. Mike Johanns questions NSA Director, Gen. Keith Alexnder, during Senate Appropriations Committee hearing. [8 min.]