Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency, testifies… (Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images )
WASHINGTON -- The director of the National Security Agency portrayed the collection of millions of U.S. telephone records each day as a limited program designed to thwart terrorist plots, but made it clear that the NSA needed only a "reasonable suspicion" of a terrorist link to search the vast databank, not a separate court order.
Testifying on Capitol Hill for the first time since news reports exposed the secret NSA program last week, Gen. Keith Alexander said the provision in the Patriot Act that authorizes collection of so-called business records, including calling records, has helped prevent or disrupt "dozens of terrorist plots." He said he would provide more details in coming days.
But he also told the Senate Appropriations Committee that only "a few" intelligence reports were based on the phone records.
Under questioning from Democrats and Republicans, Alexander downplayed any privacy infringement risk from the NSA archive of so-called telephony metadata -- detailed records of each domestic call made or received, but not their contents.
The NSA won't search the data "unless we have some reasonable, articulable suspicion about a terrorist organization," he said. "Once we have that, we can see who this guy was talking to in the United States. But if you didn't collect that, how would you know who he was talking to?"
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court issues secret orders every 90 days or so to obtain the data from telecommunications companies, but the NSA does not need another court order to use it. Instead, NSA lawyers decide when a legal threshold is met to authorize access.
"It's a very deliberate process," Alexander said. "We don't get to look at the data. We don't get to swim through the data."
The NSA has gathered records from U.S. phone companies since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, although the current program began seven years ago after the law was modified.
On Sunday, Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old employee of Booz Allen Hamilton who had worked at an NSA facility in Hawaii, said he had leaked details of the classified program to a reporter from Britain's Guardian newspaper because he viewed surveillance of Americans as morally wrong.
Alexander argued that the intelligence program was legal and appropriate.
"I think what we're doing to protect American citizens here is the right thing," he said. "We aren't trying to hide it. We're trying to protect America."
Alexander was asked how a relatively junior contract employee could access so many national security secrets.
The NSA outsourced its information technology infrastructure about 14 years ago, he replied.
"This individual was a system administrator with access to key parts of the network," he said. "This is something we have to fix."
[For the Record, 11:43 a.m. PST June 13: This post has been updated to include additional information on the NSA's telecommunications database.]