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NSA director claims leaks damaged US security as Senators question legality of surveillance

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General Keith Alexander
General Keith Alexander

The National Security Agency (NSA) is not having a great month. Three weeks after the NSA's secret internet surveillance program PRISM and its separate covert phone records collection effort were publicly revealed by leaked documents published in The Guardian, the US intelligence community is grappling with the political and security fallout. Just yesterday, NSA director General Keith Alexander gave a speech in Baltimore in which he alleged that the publication of the leaked documents caused “significant and irreversible damage," to US national security.

"those who wish us harm now know how we counter their actions."

As for precisely how the leaks undermined security, Alexander was vaguer, saying: "those who wish us harm now know how we counter their actions." Despite his statements and others given by anonymous US intelligence officials earlier this week to the Associated Press claiming terror groups were changing their communication methods in response to the leaks, Bloomberg recently debunked the notion that terror groups use the major internet services that PRISM supposedly surveils, such as Skype and Gmail. And this week, Foreign Policy quoted an anonymous telecommunication executive who said that there was no way to distinguish between US and foreign suspects in data collected through email surveillance.

Congress, for its part, also isn't exactly buying President Obama's line that lawmakers were "fully briefed" on how the NSA phone and internet surveillance programs worked, at least not legally. Today, a bipartisan group of 26 senators sent a letter to James Clapper, the US Director of National Intelligence (technically Alexander's boss), demanding "unclassified answers," to seven broad questions about the NSA's phone surveillance efforts. "We are concerned that by depending on secret interpretations of the PATRIOT Act that differed from an intuitive reading of the statue, this program essentially relied for years on a secret body of law," the letter states, before asking: "how long has the NSA used PATRIOT Act authorities to engage in bulk collection of Americans' records?" and whether the agency has been using the law to collect other types of data.

Senators earlier this month also introduced legislation to review the NSA's surveillance authorities by 2015. Altogether, Congress appears headed for a showdown with the NSA in a big way. Whether any substantive change comes from the clash remains to be seen.