Asked whether the National Security Agency should collect all communications of U.S. residents at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Thursday, NSA Director General Keith Alexander replied, "I believe it is in the nation's best interest to put all the phone records into a lockbox – yes."
Alexander, who was joined by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Deputy Attorney General James Cole, went on to maintain the the NSA's collect-it-all approach to communications surveillance in the U.S. and around the world is necessary—urging Senators not to be moved by the rising tide of public discontent that has surged since NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed a trove of incriminating evidence through several newspapers, exposing the agency's unconstitutional surveillance practices.
Alexander blamed "sensational headlines," not the actual dragnet surveillance practices revealed in the media, for public anger—a notion that seemed to be shared by most of the Senators at the hearing, who are supposed to be in charge of NSA congressional oversight.
Barring questions posed by NSA critics Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), most of the hearing consisted of 'soft balls' lobbed at the intelligence chiefs sitting in the not-so-hot seat. As Matt Sledge at The Huffington Post puts it:
[Sen. Dianne] Feinstein and Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), the committee's ranking Republican who called Snowden "a hero to our enemies," peppered their remarks with references to the Sept. 11 attacks and the recent assault on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya. Other senators, including Dan Coats (R-Ind.), said that they had no questions for the nation's top spies despite months of revelations about the NSA's highly controversial actions.
And as Glenn Greenwald, the reporter who helped break the Snowden leaks, writes Friday:
The Senate Intelligence Committee yesterday held a hearing, ostensibly to investigate various issues raised about the NSA's activities. What the hearing primarily achieved instead was to underscore what a farce the notion of Congressional oversight over the NSA is.
And as Kevin Gosztola at FireDogLake reports, "Multiple senators used their time to express the opinion that the media was to blame for sensationalizing what Snowden had exposed when there was nothing corrupt going on at the NSA and oversight was occurring properly." He adds, "It was a sham of a hearing."
Feinstein and Chambliss also proposed an NSA reform bill at the hearing but the bill "broadly echoes the small tweaks the intelligence establishment says it will consider, but does not go further," The Guardian reports.
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However, Wyden and Udall, who on Wednesday proposed a separate NSA reform bill that was hailed by civil liberties experts as a positive step towards curbing the agency's abusive practices, managed to squeeze in a few legitimate questions within the strict time limit imposed by Feinstein, who entirely cut off a second round of questioning.
Asked in a series of questions posed by Udall whether the NSA sought to collect the records of all Americans, Alexander replied: "yes" and there is “no upper limit,” but continued to refuse to release any extensive details of the program.
When asked by Wyden, “Has the NSA ever collected or ever made any plans to collect Americans’ cell site information?” Alexander refused to answer, citing classified information.
"The leadership of your agencies built an intelligence collection system that repeatedly deceived the American people," Wyden said in a more heated moment with Alexander, in reference to recent misleading statements made by Alexander and Clapper to Congress about the NSA.
"You talk about the damage that has been done by disclosures, but any government official who thought this would never be disclosed was ignoring history," Wyden said. "The truth always manages to come out."
"Now that these secret interpretations of the law and violations of the constitutional rights of Americans have become public, your agencies face terrible consequences that were not planned for," Wyden added.
Watch Wyden's exchange with the intelligence heads in the video below: