National Security Agency Director Keith Alexander stated during a hearing on Wednesday that the NSA's dragnet surveillance methods are a necessary means of fighting increasing terrorism threats, and said that "taking these programs off the table is absolutely not the thing to do."
Alexander asked the Senate Judiciary Committee not to block the NSA from collecting metadata, saying "there is no other way to connect the dots." Committee chairman Senator Patrick Leahy and Representative Jim Sensenbrenner have proposed legislation that would do just that, by barring the use of Section 215 of the Patriot Act to allow indiscriminate collection of personal communications. Section 215 regulates "access to records and other items under the foreign intelligence surveillance act."
Even if the Leahy-Sensenbrenner USA Freedom Act is passed, however, Alexander may not have that much to worry about. Deputy Attorney General James Cole said that "if the USA Freedom Act becomes law, it’s going to depend on how the court interprets any number of the provisions that are in it, and any number of the additional requirements that are contained in it over what is here now," adding, "on the bulk data, I think it’s going to be a question of the court’s interpretation.”
Eight major Internet companies — Twitter, Facebook, AOL, Yahoo, Microsoft, Google, Apple and LinkedIn, many of whom have participated in federal surveillance programs — demanded surveillance law reforms earlier this week. They wrote in an open letter:
The undersigned companies believe that it is time for the world’s governments to address the practices and laws regulating government surveillance of individuals and access to their information. While the undersigned companies understand that governments need to take action to protect their citizens’ safety and security, we strongly believe that current laws and practices need to be reformed.
Alexander, for his part, appears aware that the largely reviled NSA tactics amount to a ticking PR time-bomb for the federal government. The practice, he said, is like "holding a hornet's nest. We're getting stung." Not that it will stop them from collecting the data, mind you, but he just wants to let you know that he's aware.