WASHINGTON - The director of the National Security Agency said Thursday that he would release more information about the top secret programs that sweep up vast quantities of communications data on people here and abroad, and vowed to clear up what he said were inaccuracies and misperceptions about how the programs work.
But the disclosure of any further details, said the director, Gen. Keith B. Alexander, would have to balance the public’s right to know with the risks of divulging material that could tip off enemies.
“We have pledged to be as transparent as possible,” he said after emerging from a classified briefing with House members. “I think it’s important that you have that information. But we don’t want to risk American lives in doing that. So what we’re being is very deliberate in this process so that we don’t end up causing a terrorist attack by giving out too much information.”
Alexander did not elaborate on what kinds of information the NSA would disclose, beyond saying that it would involve statistics about the programs in question.
“And I think when the American people hear that,” he added, “they’re going to stop and say: ‘Wait. The information we’re getting is incorrect.’”
Among the inaccuracies he said he wanted to clear up was that the NSA is listening to Americans’ phone calls.
Alexander appeared before reporters in the Capitol flanked by the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers of Michigan, and the committee’s senior Democrat, C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a bipartisan show of unity reflecting the general agreement among leaders on Capitol Hill that the surveillance programs are worthwhile and legal.
Alexander took no questions from reporters.
Rogers stressed that grave damage was done by the disclosure of the programs, which involve a huge database of the logs of nearly every domestic phone call made by Americans, and the collection of information from American Internet companies like Google without individual court orders if the request is targeted at noncitizens abroad.
“The more we know, the more dangerous this situation becomes,” he said, adding that people believed to be intent on doing Americans harm had already altered their activities since the existence of the programs became public.
He also said that a “damage assessment” was underway within the NSA to assess what other kinds of secrets that the leaker, Edward J. Snowden, a former NSA contractor, might have tried to obtain.
Rogers went as far as to question whether there was something deeper to uncover about Snowden’s ties to China, where he fled after making the NSA programs public.
“We need to ask a lot more questions about his motives, his connections, where he ended up, why he is there,” Rogers said. “How is he sustaining himself while he is there? And is the Chinese government fully cooperating?”