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NSA Chief Faces Tough Crowd At Hacker Conference


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

And I'm Renee Montagne.


In this case, what happens in Vegas does not stay in Vegas. A standing room only crowd packed a ballroom at Caesar's Palace yesterday to hear General Keith Alexander. The director of the National Security Agency delivered a keynote address to a hacker conference. And given the recent NSA leak, he ended up in front of a very tough crowd.

NPR's Steve Henn was there.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: General Keith Alexander came to this conference - Black Hat - to go on a charm offensive.

GENERAL KEITH ALEXANDER: This is the technical foundation for our world's communications - you folks right here.

HENN: But he didn't just resort to flattery. On Tuesday, the day before his speech, he met privately with technology leaders from some of the country's biggest tech companies. Then he went out to dinner with a group of hackers.

And yesterday Jeff Moss, the hacker who founded this conference 16 years ago, gave him credit for just showing up.

JEFF MOSS: It would have been easy for him to sort of duck out and not come speak to us, you know, go to a meeting.

HENN: But Black Hat and its sister conference DEF CON have been fertile ground for NSA recruiting for years. The brightest minds in computer security from around the world flock here each summer. And the men and women who run computer security at the world's biggest tech firms are here too.

In short, the NSA has to deal with these people. And yesterday General Alexander said he came here to clear up some misperceptions about how the NSA's surveillance program operates.

ALEXANDER: I will answer every question to the fullest extent possible. And I promise you the truth. What we know, what we're doing, and what I cannot tell you because we don't want to jeopardize our future defense.

HENN: Ultimately, however, the only questions that Alexander answered were pre-selected by the conference organizers or shouted out from hecklers.

Just hours before he spoke, the Obama administration declassified more details about two NSA data collection programs, and then the Guardian newspaper published more classified documents describing how the NSA searches through huge quantities of digital information it collects from approximately 150 network sites around the world.

The NSA said that program was lawful and aimed at collecting foreign intelligence. But again and again yesterday, Alexander tried to make the point that all of these programs were essential to disrupting terror plots and they all function within the law.

ALEXANDER: I think it's important to understand the strict oversight that goes in on these programs. Because the assumption is that people are out there just wheeling and dealing - and nothing could be further from the truth.

HENN: Alexander said the NSA closely tracks and then audits each analyst who accesses its enormous repositories of data. It does this to ensure that these databases aren't abused. He argued that federal judges who oversea the NSA's collection programs are not simply rubber stamps. But ultimately the question he struggled to answer was shouted from the audience.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Why should we believe you are not lying to us right now?

HENN: Basically, why should we believe you?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You lied to Congress.

ALEXANDER: I haven't lied to Congress.

HENN: And that's true. Alexander didn't lie to Congress. But many here believe that his boss - the director of National Intelligence, James Clapper - did, when he told Congress earlier this year that the NSA was not collecting personal information about millions of Americans.

Yesterday that left General Alexander stuck, asking a skeptical crowd to trust in a system of checks and balances they couldn't see for themselves. After all, the details of most Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court proceedings are still classified; so are the contents of all these internal NSA audits. So all Alexander could do was ask the crowd to believe him, to take him at his word that his team - his analysts - were being maligned.

ALEXANDER: And their reputation is tarnished because all the facts aren't on the table.

HENN: But that's unlikely to change because so much about the NSA is still secret.

Steve Henn, NPR News, Las Vegas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Henn is NPR's technology correspondent based in Menlo Park, California, who is currently on assignment with Planet Money. An award winning journalist, he now covers the intersection of technology and modern life - exploring how digital innovations are changing the way we interact with people we love, the institutions we depend on and the world around us. In 2012 he came frighteningly close to crashing one of the first Tesla sedans ever made. He has taken a ride in a self-driving car, and flown a drone around Stanford's campus with a legal expert on privacy and robotics.