The director of the National Security Agency testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee that its surveillance programs have successfully disrupted terror plots.
“It’s dozens of terrorist events that these have helped prevent,” Gen. Keith Alexander said in response to questions from Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.).
Tough questioning on government phone tracking continued at the open hearing, which had been scheduled to discuss the growing concerns about protecting the nation from cybersecurity threats.
“I think what we’re doing to protect American citizens here is the right thing,” Alexander said. “We aren’t trying to hide it.”
The NSA chief and commander of the U.S. Cyber Command defended his agency and the necessity of the surveillance programs. However, he said he is working on being transparent for the American public.
“Some of these are still going to be classified and should be, because if we tell the terrorists every way that we're going to track them, they will get through and Americans will die,” Alexander said. “I would rather take a public beating and people think I’m hiding something than jeopardize the security of this country.”
When asked by Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) how a 29-year-old high school and community college dropout got so close to sensitive national security information, Alexander admitted that the hiring process needs close review.
“I do have concerns about that,” Alexander said. “Over the process … the access he had, the process that he did. I think those absolutely need to be looked at.”
The Senate hearing was Alexander’s first public appearance since Edward Snowden leaked details on a classified program that collected phone records and Internet data.
Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D., Md.) tried multiple times to encourage senators to save their questions on government tracking for a later hearing and focus on the nation’s cyber threats.
"On a scale of one to 10, with 10 being strongly defended, our critical infrastructure's preparedness to withstand a destructive cyber attack is about a three based on my experience," Alexander said.
Alexander did not go into details about the surveillance program conducted under Sec. 215 of the Patriot act. He said he wanted to work on declassifying information that does not compromise national security.
“I do think it's important that we get this right, and I want the American people to know that we're trying to be transparent here, protect civil liberties and privacy but also the security of this country,” Alexander said.
Rand Beers, acting deputy secretary of Homeland Security; Patrick Gallagher, acting deputy commerce secretary and director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology; and Richard McFeely, executive assistant director of the FBI's criminal, cyber, response, and services branch were also present at the hearing.
The officials said a continued partnership between the agencies would lead to greater success in countering cyber attacks.
They agreed that partnerships between industries are also essential to ensure that attacks do not occur.
Additionally, they said investing in educating a skilled workforce through incentives and college programs will help combat cyber crimes.