FORT MEADE, Md. -- The director of the National Security Agency, Gen. Keith B. Alexander, said in an interview that to prevent terrorist attacks he saw no effective alternative to the NSA's bulk collection of telephone and other electronic metadata from Americans. But he acknowledged that his agency now faced an entirely new reality, and the possibility of congressional restrictions, after revelations about its operations at home and abroad.
Although he acknowledged that the NSA must change its dialogue with the public, Gen. Alexander was adamant that the agency adhered to the law.
"We followed the law, we follow our policies, we self-report, we identify problems, we fix them," he said. "And I think we do a great job, and we do, I think, more to protect people's civil liberties and privacy than they'll ever know."
While offering a detailed defense of his agency's work, Gen. Alexander said the broader lesson of the controversy over disclosures of secret NSA surveillance missions was that he and other top officials have to be more open in explaining the agency's role, especially as it expands its mission into cyberoffense and cyberdefense.
"Given where we are and all the issues that are on the table, I do feel it's important to have a public, transparent discussion on cyber so that the American people know what's going on," Gen. Alexander said. "And in order to have that, they need to understand the truth about what's going on."
Gen. Alexander, a career Army intelligence officer who also serves as head of the military's Cyber Command, has become the public face of the secret -- and, to many, unwarranted -- government collection of records about personal communications in the name of national security.
Interviewed at the agency's heavily guarded headquarters, Gen. Alexander acknowledged that his agency, steeped in decades of secrecy, had stumbled in responding to the revelations by Edward J. Snowden, the contractor who stole thousands of documents about the NSA's most secret programs.
But Gen. Alexander insisted that the chief problem was a public misunderstanding about what information the agency collects -- and what it does not -- not the programs themselves.
"We, and that includes the press, have not informed the American people in such a way that they can make a right decision here," he said.
"The way we've explained it to the American people has gotten them so riled up that nobody told them the facts of the program and the controls that go around it," he added. But he was firm in saying that the disclosures had allowed adversaries, whether foreign governments or terrorist organizations, to learn how to avoid detection by American intelligence and had caused "significant and irreversible damage" to national security.
Gen. Alexander said that he was extremely sensitive to the power of the software tools and electronic weapons being developed by the United States for surveillance and computer-network warfare, and that he set a very high bar for when the nation should use these powerful cybertools for offensive purposes.
"I see no reason to use offensive tools unless you're defending the country or in a state of war, or you want to achieve some really important thing for the good of the nation and others," he said.
Those comments were prompted by a document in the Snowden trove that said the United States conducted more than 200 offensive cyberattacks in 2011 alone. But U.S. officials say that in reality only a handful of attacks have been carried out. They say the erroneous estimate reflected an inaccurate grouping of other electronic missions.
But Gen. Alexander would not discuss any specific cases in which the United States had used those weapons, including the best-known example: its years-long attack on Iran's nuclear enrichment facility at Natanz. To critics of President Barack Obama's administration, that decision made it easier for China, Iran and other nations to justify their own use of cyberweapons.
Gen. Alexander, who became the NSA director in 2005, will retire early next year. The timing of his departure was set in March when his tour was extended for a third time, according to officials, who said it had nothing to do with the surveillance controversy spawned by the leaks.
The appointment of his successor is likely to be a focal point of congressional debate over whether the huge infrastructure that was built during his tenure will remain or begin to be restricted.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., who leads the Senate Judiciary Committee, has already drafted legislation to eliminate the NSA's ability to systematically obtain Americans' calling records. And Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., co-author of the Patriot Act, is drafting a bill that would significantly cut back on domestic surveillance programs.
Gen. Alexander insisted that it would have been impossible to have made public, in advance of the revelations by Mr. Snowden, the fact that the agency collected what it calls the "business records" of all telephone calls, and many other electronic communications, made in the United States. The agency is under rules preventing it from investigating that so-called haystack of data unless it has a "reasonable, articulable" justification, involving communications with terrorists abroad, he added.
But he said the agency had not told its story well. As an example, he said, the agency itself killed a program in 2011 that collected the metadata of about 1 percent of all of the emails sent in the United States. "We terminated it," he said. "It was not operationally relevant to what we needed."
However, until it was killed, the NSA had repeatedly defended that program as vital in reports to Congress.
First Published October 12, 2013 8:00 PM