"I don't know a better way to do it," said General Keith Alexander, director of the National Intelligence Agency, to a Senate oversight panel on Wednesday.
Referring to the bulk-collection of personal data that the NSA sweeps up in a series of domestic and global surveillance programs that have been disclosed to the public through a trove a leaked internal documents this year, Alexander defended the practices of his agency as necessary to save lives.
"There is no other way we know of to connect the dots," he said in testimony and suggested, according to reporting by the Guardian's Spencer Ackerman, that even if lawmakers passed measures barring the collection of so-called "meta-data" and other forms of private information, "that would not be final word on the matter."
As Ackerman reports:
Alexander – along with his colleagues, deputy attorney general James Cole and top intelligence community lawyer Robert Litt – declined to take a firm position on a bill before the committee, sponsored by chairman Patrick Leahy, that would end the bulk collection without a court order.
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Although the bill's text and stated intent would be to prevent suspicionless bulk data collection domestically, Cole said that the actual extent of the prohibition would "depend on how the courts interpret it."
It was the first time the NSA or its allies have suggested that its dragnets on American phone data might not be stopped even if Leahy's bill, which supporters claim has 120 co-sponsors in the House and Senate, passes through Congress.
Speaking to the panel, Alexander said the American public shouldn't be concerned about the size or scope of the NSA's claimed dragnet authority.
"The number isn't that big," Alexander responded when asked how many individuals' information was being swept up. "When the American people understand that, they'll know we're doing this right."