By Spencer Ackerman
The outgoing director of the National Security Agency lashed out at media organizations reporting on Edward Snowden’s surveillance revelations, suggesting that British authorities were right to detain David Miranda on terrorism charges and that reporters lack the ability to properly analyze the NSA’s broad surveillance powers.
General Keith Alexander, who has furiously denounced the Snowden revelations, said at a Tuesday cybersecurity panel that unspecified “headway” on what he termed “media leaks” was forthcoming in the next several weeks, possibly to include “media leaks legislation.”
In perhaps his most expansive remarks to date since Miranda – the partner of former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald – was detained for nine hours at Heathrow airport last summer, Alexander noted that a panel of UK judges found Miranda’s detention to be legal.
“Recently, what came out with the justices in the United Kingdom … they looked at what happened on Miranda and other things, and they said it’s interesting: journalists have no standing when it comes to national security issues. They don’t know how to weigh the fact of what they’re giving out and saying, is it in the nation’s interest to divulge this,” Alexander said.
“And I just put that on the table because that’s a key issue that we as a nation [are] going to face. My personal opinion: these leaks have caused grave, significant and irreversible damage to our nation and to our allies. It will take us years to recover,” he said.
Miranda was held for the maximum amount of time allowable under schedule 7 of the UK’s Terrorism Act 2000. The Guardian paid for Miranda’s trip from his Rio de Janeiro home to Berlin, during which he met with filmmaker Laura Poitras, one of the recipients of Snowden’s leaks. Miranda carried with him encrypted files that included thousands of classified UK surveillance documents that came from Snowden, in order to facilitate journalism about the source material.
Although the statute cited to detain Miranda concerns terrorism – with which UK officials have never suspected Miranda of involvement – a panel of three UK judges last month quashed a legal challenge to his detention.
Lord Justice Laws, a member of the panel, found that the objective of Miranda’s detention “was not only legitimate but very pressing,” a decision criticized by press-freedom advocates in the UK and beyond.
Alexander said he would be at the White House on Tuesday to discuss proposed changes to the NSA’s mass collection of US phone records, less than a week after he seemed to soften his opposition to the NSA acquiring only metadata related to terrorism.
The general, who is due to retire in the next several weeks, said that the furore over Snowden’s surveillance revelations – which he referred to only as “media leaks” – was complicating his ability to get congressional support for a bill that would permit the NSA and the military Cyber Command he also helms to secretly communicate with private entities like banks about online data intrusions and attacks.
“We’ve got to handle media leaks first,” Alexander said.
“I think we are going to make headway over the next few weeks on media leaks. I am an optimist. I think if we make the right steps on the media leaks legislation, then cyber legislation will be a lot easier,” Alexander said.
The NSA’s public affairs office told the Guardian on Wednesday that Alexander was using “media leaks legislation” to mean the range of legislative options to restructure the bulk collection of domestic phone call data.
Alexander has previously mused about “stopping” journalism related to the Snowden revelations.
“We ought to come up with a way of stopping it. I don’t know how to do that. That’s more of the courts and the policymakers but, from my perspective, it’s wrong to allow this to go on,” he told an official Defense Department blog in October.
While Attorney General Eric Holder said last year that he had no plans to pursue charges against Greenwald, pro-NSA officials have recently taken to using loaded legal language when referring to the journalists reporting on the Snowden documents.
James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, called on Snowden and unnamed “accomplices” to return the surveillance documents cache during congressional testimony in January. The chairman of the House intelligence committee, Mike Rogers of Michigan, called Greenwald a “thief” last month.
Like other NSA officials and their allies over the past several months, Alexander has become more visible to the public, part of the NSA’s push to regain control of the public narrative as the Obama administration and members of Congress debate the future scope of the NSA’s powers.
In an October interview with the New York Times, Alexander said: “I do feel it’s important to have a public, transparent discussion on cyber so that the American people know what’s going on.”
But staff at Georgetown University, which sponsored the Tuesday cybersecurity forum, took the microphone away from a Guardian reporter who attempted to ask Alexander if the NSA had missed the signs of Russia’s invasion and occupation of Ukraine, which appeared to take Obama administration policymakers by surprise.
Although the event was open to reporters, journalists were abruptly told following the NSA director’s remarks that they were not permitted to ask questions of Alexander, who did not field the Ukraine question. Following the event, security staff closed a stairwell gate on journalists who attempted to ask Alexander questions on his way out.