Tonight's episode of 60 Minutes featured what CBS promised was an unusual inside look at the secretive National Security Agency, but instead offered a routine look at the agency's propaganda with no critical voices. Opening with the disclosure that CBS correspondent John Miller formerly worked in the office of the director of National Intelligence, the program prompted NSA director Keith Alexander and other agents to reiterate the agency's usual talking points about bulk surveillance.
"The fact is, we're not collecting everybody's email, we're not collecting everybody's phone things, we're not listening to that," Alexander said. But the focus on actively listening to phone calls is a red herring; the NSA has not been accused of doing that. The agency instead collects metadata from every phone call placed within the United States — something the government argues is harmless and exempt from constitutional protections. That argument is highly controversial with privacy advocates since the bulk collection of metadata can reveal much more about a person than even the contents of some communications.
Among his slippery answers, Alexander denied a damning Washington Post report from October which claimed the NSA was secretly tapping into the internal traffic of Google and Yahoo without permission in order to access data before it became encrypted. "We are outraged at the lengths to which the government seems to have gone to intercept data from our private fiber networks, and it underscores the need for urgent reform," Google's chief legal officer David Drummond told The Verge. Tonight, Alexander appears to have deflected those claims, telling CBS that "we're not going into a facility or targeting Google as an entity or Yahoo as an entity."
"A 20-something-year-old high school dropout contractor managed to walk out with the crown jewels."
The interview also featured an extensive attempt by NSA agents to discredit former contractor Edward Snowden. Snowden, who leaked documents this year revealing the extent of the telephone-records program and other efforts like PRISM, was described by CBS' John Miller as a "20-something-year-old high school dropout contractor." Discussing the NSA's visit to Snowden's former Hawaii home, Rick Ledgett, the agency's head of an Edward Snowden task force, said he "couldn't bring himself" to sit in Snowden's chair. "He would work on the computer with a hood that covered the computer screen and covered his head and shoulders, so that he could work and his girlfriend couldn't see what he was doing."
"That's pretty strange," Miller said.
Alexander went a step further, comparing Snowden to a murderer. "This is analogous to a hostage taker taking 50 people hostage, shooting 10 and then say, 'if you give me full amnesty I'll let the other 40 go.'" Alexander said the secretary of defense and director of national intelligence rejected his offer to resign for the leaks.
The NSA and White House have worked in recent months to repair the US intelligence community's image, opting to make selective disclosures about the secret orders and legal interpretations that have allowed the government to conduct bulk surveillance on American citizens. Meanwhile, journalists in possession of documents leaked by Snowden continue to release reports about the NSA's unprecedented surveillance programs. While Snowden was reported to have left the stolen files behind before seeking asylum in Russia, the NSA says that he may still have up to 1.7 million documents.