WASHINGTON – The outgoing chief of the National Security Agency told lawmakers Thursday he wants to end the controversy over massive surveillance programs to move forward on key defense and cybersecurity issues.
General Keith Alexander, who is due to retire this month, said the public outcry over leaked NSA documents has prevented progress on issues such as cybersecurity legislation.
“I think that we need to step back, set a framework for discussion with the American people,” Alexander told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“This is going to be absolutely important in setting up what we can and cannot do in cyberspace to protect this country. And from my perspective, that’s going to be one of the big issues that we move forward. I think a precursor to that is getting the NSA issues resolved. We have to get those resolved because, ironically, it operates in the same space.”
Alexander said that in line with a directive from President Barack Obama, his agency will draft a proposal for reforming the NSA and its surveillance authority.
Obama last month ordered a revamp of the NSA authority including a plan that could retain bulk data collection of phone records, but outside of government.
Alexander said that as the reforms move ahead, there is a need to advance stalled cybersecurity legislation that would enable better information sharing between government and private networks about threats to key infrastructure such as pipelines, power grids and financial networks.
“I am concerned… that the lack of legislation will impact our ability to defend the country in this area,” Alexander said.
“I do think, though, given where we are today, we have to be transparent on this in the cyber legislation so the American people can enter into it.” Alexander, who also heads the military’s Cyber Command, said that unit’s mission depends on the NSA and its intelligence-gathering.
“If there is an attack, especially a destructive attack, the probability that that will get through is higher in the civilian infrastructure,” he said.
“From my perspective, the space, cyberspace, where both NSA and now Cyber Command operates, is one space where both the good guys and the bad guys both operate in that same space. Forty years ago it was different. Foreign military communications were on a separate circuit from our domestic communications. Now they’re all intertwined.”