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Gen. Alexander On NSA Listening To Phone Calls, Reading Emails: "We Don't Do It. We Wouldn't Do It."

BRET BAIER: General, in the New York Times today: “President Obama will seek limits for NSA on call records. Backs a wide overhaul, agency’s bulk collection would end, new role for judges.” Knowing what you know, what’s coming down the pipeline for your agency?

KEITH ALEXANDER: Well I think, a couple things with respect to the business record – section 215. We had the opportunity over the past few months to work with the interagency to figure out what are the best options for our country to address the civil liberties and privacy concerns people had and to ensure that we could continue to defend this country from terrorist attacks.

The approach that we’ve put forward, and I think the president and the interagency is not pushing is one that would limit what we get, so it does away with the business record, FISA database as we know it today, we would now work with the telecommunications company on specific numbers that have a terrorist nexus, only that data.

BAIER: 215, just to be clear, is the mass collection of numbers. You tap into that database as of now, a collection that you hold here.

ALEXANDER: Right, in fact you bring up a good point because this is not widely understood. We get a few billion call detail records a day. And we are authorized to search on only a few hundred numbers that have met a reasonable articulable suspicion standard. Now, there's constraints on that database applied by the court, overseen by several different independent IGs, the Department of Justice and others, that ensure that we can only search on those numbers. And we have what we call emphatic access restriction that ensures that only those numbers are queried and a full and complete audit of all those numbers is done daily by us and can be overseen by the administration, Congress and the courts.

BAIER: So this change would put it in the telephone companies. Is that a distinction without a difference, operationally?

ALEXANDER: The telephone companies already have the data. It's their data. They supply that to us. So rather than us taking all the data, all we're going to get is that data that directly links to a terrorist's number. Now, there are some things that we have to work our way through to ensure that we have the agility in crisis, but I think all of that's doable. So this is an approach that I think meets the intent of protecting our civil liberties and privacy and the security of this country.”

BAIER: Is it potentially dangerous in any way, shape, or form?

ALEXANDER: There are gaps no matter where we go. I think this was the best solution that we could come up with. From my perspective, I think it meets everything we have in the old system.

We've still got to address that agility, but we think we can and that's NSA working with the FBI and others in the intelligence community to ensure that in crisis like the Boston Marathon terrorist attack that we have a way of moving quickly to ensure there aren't other elements of an attack.

BAIER: How successful was this bulk data collection anyway? Were terror plots foiled specifically?

ALEXANDER: This is a key issue for everybody to understand. No one program by itself solves a terrorist plot. Is you go back to the [Khalid al-] Midhar case, the American Airlines flight that hit the Pentagon, 9/11, one of the things the intel community was beat up for was not being able to connect the dots between Midhar and the place in Yemen. This specific capability is designed to meet that. To mitigate that gap. Yes, it has been helpful, and the FBI has given us help. So some of those were material support to terrorism, some of those were leads that led the FBI to take further steps. So here is why I equivocate a little on how valuable it is.

If we had given that information in the summer of 2002 to the FBI and they at least got these four groups based on other work that they’ve done. The question is, well how valuable was 215?

The answer is that it provides the initial tip that the FBI and the rest of the intelligence community now need to come together and say there’s something here we need to look at. Is it important enough to address? And in that case, I think it is dangerous. It is good and useful today in a number of events that are going on right now.

So everyone has seen why we need this tool, if you talk to the FBI and they say we can’t afford not to have it because we don’t have the agility for national security letters and other things. So I think it’s something that we have to maintain in order to secure the nation.

BAIER: You have the stuff coming in, you’re bringing it in like a hoover.

ALEXANDER: 215, remember, is call detail records that has a number to and from, the duration of the call and the date and time group. It's just numbers. We don't know whose number it is. We know the foreign terrorist's number that's calling. If all of a sudden he calls my number, the FBI would want to know why is Zawahiri calling Alexander? What's going on with that? And they should know. We want them to know that. We want to give them that. The FBI would have to determine who I am by going to a national security letter or to a FISA, uh, warrant to get that access to my records. So in that, what we serve as the alert. We don't have Americans' e-mails or their content of their phone calls in that database. It's just numbers. It's just the call detail records. Think of this in the old phone bills that you used to get that would list all the numbers that you called. Take off your name off the top, put the two phone numbers, put those in a database, that's what we have. That's it. So when people say, well, you're listening to every thing in there or doing that, they're wrong.

BAIER: We have former President Jimmy Carter saying he writes letters instead of sending emails because he’s worried that you’re reading his emails.

ALEXANDER: Well, we're not. So he can now go back to writing e-mails. The reality is, we don't do that. And if we did, it would be illegal and we'd be found I think held accountable and responsible. Look at all the folks that have looked at what we’re doing, from the president’s review group to Congress to the courts, to DNI, DoD, Justice, everybody reviews what we do to see if anybody is doing anything illegal like you suggest. No one has found anything. Zero.

Expect for in twelve cases where people did that, and we had already reported those.

And so the issue is people say what could happen and immediately jump to that is happening.

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