The director of the National Security Agency, General Keith Alexander, opened a talk on cyber security Thursday, Nov. 11 in Baltimore by reminding attendees of the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
“Every one of us remembers 9/11,” Alexander said, adding that the NSA office has a big photo of firemen running into the World Trade Center to save people. The firemen and police officers did everything they could to defend the country that day,” he said, and “we in the military and intelligence community said ‘we’ve got it from here.’”
“These are programs that were developed to defend this country,” Alexander said in reference to some of the agency’s surveillance programs that have recently come under fire for their broad scope and implications for individual privacy.
The talk, titled “Cyber Challenges,” was hosted by the Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs at the Hyatt Regency and filled the ballroom to near-capacity.
Alexander compared the responsibility of running these programs to holding a hornet’s nest. He doesn’t like having to do it, he said, but he and his agency continue to do so because “it is our fear that there will be a gap and the potential for another 9/11,” if they do not.
Alexander defended the programs and credited a lot of the negativity to misinformation distributed by the media.
The NSA, Alexander said, does not monitor the content of calls or emails, but rather just looks to see if any of the lines in its database are in contact with any numbers or emails associated with suspected terror organizations.
While individual privacy is a priority for the government, Alexander said, national security is the top priority. Not only is his and all of his family’s information in the database, but “to ensure their safety, I’d put that data in there every day.”
After Alexander’s talk, the floor opened for questions from attendees. When one questioner asked about recent reports of the NSA monitoring the phones of foreign heads of state, Alexander interrupted him.
“Alleged,” he interjected.
“I guarantee that these things do cut both ways,” he said by way of defense of any monitoring of foreign officials.
To another questioner, James Carew Rosapepe, Maryland state senator and former U.S. Ambassador to Romania, who asked Alexander about the justification for using tools intended for defending the country against terrorism against democratically elected heads of allied states, he responded that the NSA does not make the policies, it simply carries them out.
For a man who has been the subject of a lot of scrutiny lately, the reception at the event was relatively warm. With just a handful of protestors outside the hotel, there were very few signs indicating the degree to which the NSA has been the subject of such dispute over the past few months.
Stephanie Hershkovitz, who recently joined the Baltimore foreign affairs council, said the talk didn’t offer anything she considered to be especially groundbreaking.
“He was kind of a spokesperson today,” she said.
But, she added, as with most talks by high-ranking officials, “that’s the nature of the beast.”