Transcript: Rep. Jim Langevin’s Q&A with DNI James Clapper & NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander on surveillance programs – Oct. 29, 2013

Partial transcript of Rep. Jim Langevin’s (D-Rhode Island) Q&A with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander on NSA’s surveillance programs before the House Intelligence Committee on Oct. 29, 2013:

Rep. Jim Langevin (D-Rhode Island):
…Let me just say that in the years that I’ve been on this committee and in all the years that General, you, and Director, you’ve appeared before the committee, I’ve always found you to be very forthcoming. And the programs that we are debating, discussing today, although there may be changes to them, I’ve always found that you and the NSA have bent over backwards to try to operate within the confines of the law of the Constitution and I realize how serious you take all these issues.

There are extremely important issues that are before the committee today, and I certainly appreciate being able to have this discussion in an open forum and I think it’s important that the American people have confidence in what we’re doing and that the things that are happening are in the nation’s best interest, their best interest, and respecting and protecting privacy and civil liberties altogether.

Over the past several months, I’ve obviously have heard concerns about the scope and character of NSA’s surveillance program loudly and clearly from my constituents. I’m sure my colleagues on the committee have as well. And I hope that the information from this hearing is going to help address the legitimate questions that have been raised on these issues and I think the more transparent that we can be about this, the better.

Obviously, there are things right now that the Congress is considering, the President’s talked about. We’re looking at the scope of our intelligence program and the surveillance that we do to protect our nation from harm.

I’d like to give you an opportunity to talk about if we’re going to rebalance, you know, what the tradeoffs are, because obviously for every action, there’s going to be an opposite equal reaction. And there are some, for example, in the Sensenbrenner legislation wants to repeal much of USA Patriot Act. If we do that, what are the ramifications? And where are some of the areas where we can curtail perhaps some of the surveillance? What would be the impact of that?

NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander:
So, if I could start, Congressman, thanks for your staunch support over the years.

With respect to business record FISA, my concern is right now one of the key ways that we have of connecting what we know about foreign activities with domestic numbers and passing that to the FBI as having the business record FISA. This is not just us passing a number to the FBI and saying, “Here, good luck with it.”

As Chris noted, one of the things was a number that Najibullah Zazi had. That number connected to Adis Medunjanin in New York, who then connected to 2 other numbers and 2 sets of terrorist-related activities. If you don’t know what the numbers mean, you just get a number and all you know is I have a number and you pick out a number and you say, “What is it?” You don’t know if you’re facing a threat or something else.

What the FBI needs at that point is the fact that this number is associated with other known terrorist activities and you have a significant event. That allows them to very quickly look at it.

If we take away that program, what you do is you create a gap. Now, that’s a risk that the Congress and the policymakers will set up. We will follow faithfully the laws that you’ve established as we’ve always have and the policies that are set up.

What you’re asking me is is there a risk and the answer is yes. We know that risk because that’s where it existed in 9/11. And this is one of the programs that we took. It was one incident; it was catastrophic.

I don’t know if we’ll always be successful in the future. We can’t guarantee that. My concern is if we take away a program that’s helping to defend this country, I think it’s wrong if there’s a perception of civil liberties and privacy just because we haven’t articulated the program well enough so that people understand how we protect their privacy here and what we do. And that’s something we’re all trying to do. I think all of you here have tried to do that. We’ve tried to do. And what we’ve got to do is help the American people understand it.

My concern – it will create a gap.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper:
I’ll just answer that in all of this – whether we amend a tool or remove it entirely – it actually has the same impact as a cut, as a reduction in capability occasioned by sequestration, and the net effect is we will do the very best we can with the tools and the capabilities we’re given. But I think it’s incumbent on all of us, collectively, to recognize the fact that when that happens, we are incurring greater risks. I say that as a general comment.

Rep. Jim Langevin (D-Rhode Island):
…We’re going to get this right. It is vitally important that we obviously give confidence to the American people that we are doing everything possible to operate within the confines of law of the Constitution. It’s what they expect, what they demand. At the same time, we have to have these capabilities in place that are going to allow us to know the threats that we are facing as a nation. And I think that the greater transparency, the checks and balances that we can have, the better to make sure that the American people have confidence that everything is being done the right way.

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