At Black Hat, U.S. general offers a modest glimpse into NSA protocols

Keynote speaker Gen. Keith Alexander insists programs have checks and balances in place to prevent abuse

U.S. Gen. Keith Alexander took to the keynote podium today at Black Hat 2013 to shed some light on the government's maligned surveillance program, arguing that they aren't used as broadly as privacy advocates fear, undergo strict checks and balances, and have helped to thwart dozens of potential terrorist threats in the United States, Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Whether Alexander's address -- combined with newly declassified documents about some of the programs -- will quell critics' concerns remains to be seen. Aside from a couple of outbursts from audience members during the speech, attendees listened quietly, even offering a smattering of applause when the general spoke to how the programs have helped to disrupt attacks.

"[The programs'] reputations are tarnished because all the facts aren't on the table. I believe it's important for you to understand what [agents] have to do in order to do their jobs to defend this nation and the oversight regime that we have with the courts, with Congress, and with the [Obama] administration. I think you need to understand that in order to get the full understanding of what we do and what we do not do."

Alexander spoke about two specific programs: Section 215 of the Patriot Act, and Section 702 of FISA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Section 215, he said, is a counterterrorism program designed to identify the communication of people suspected to be associated with terrorist organizations and who are communicating with individuals inside the United States.

Through the program, the NSA can obtain the date and time calls are made, the calling number, the number of the recipient, the duration of the call, and the origin of the metadata record. He said the NSA does not receive the actual voice communications, email or text messages, or subscriber info like names, address, credit card numbers, or location information.

Section 702 of FISA lets the feds monitor communications between foreign powers and "agents of foreign powers." That may include American citizens or residents suspected of espionage or terrorism. The program is "for foreign intelligence purposes. This is not targeting U.S. persons; this is targeting threats overseas. This is our lawful intercept program, which is analogous to many other countries' around the world."

Obtaining a court order is no easy task, according to Alexander; each request isn't simply rubber-stamped. "I am on the other end of that table with federal judges ... these are people with tremendous legal experience that don't take any -- I am trying to think of a word here -- from even a four-star general," he said.

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