LAS VEGAS, NEVADA, UNITED STATES (JULY 31, 2013) (REUTERS) - National Security Agency Director General Keith Alexander sparred with a few hecklers as he defended the U.S. spy agency's surveillance programs at the Black Hat security conference on Wednesday (July 31), but largely kept the crowd of cybersecurity experts and hackers on his side.
"How do we know you're not lying to us now?" one heckler shouted at the 61-year-old four-star general as he responded to polite but tough questions selected in advance by conference organizers.
The four-star general, who wore uniform shirt sleeves, was the opening keynote speaker at the annual convention in Las Vegas, which drew about 7,000 cybersecurity experts and hackers from the private and public sectors.
Alexander has been under fire from many civil liberties advocates and lawmakers since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked documents revealing previously secret telephone and internet surveillance programs run by the U.S. government.
Snowden, facing U.S. criminal charges and holed up in Russia, disclosed details on how the NSA gathers and stores telephone calling records of virtually all Americans, and works closely with Google, Microsoft and other technology companies to obtain communications from users in other countries.
His tone was mostly conciliatory, though he asserted that allegations of indiscriminate eavesdropping by the NSA had not been borne out by a Senate committee investigation, internal audits or reviews by administration officials.
"Congress did a review of this program over a four year period, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and over that four year period, the found no willful or knowledgeable violations of the law or the intent of the law in this program. More specifically, they found no one at NSA had ever gone outside the boundaries of what we've been given. That's the fact. What you're hearing, what you're seeing, what people are saying is 'Well they could.' The fact is, they don't," said Gen. Alexander.
The furor over the NSA surveillance programs threatens the overseas business of some U.S. companies, as technology buyers look to local alternatives to replace U.S. services that can be intercepted.
Because information on so many Americans is subject to collection without any suspicion of wrongdoing, Snowden's revelations have provoked a large privacy outcry.
The U.S. government on Wednesday (July 31) released some declassified documents on the NSA's mass collection of telephone data.
The documents included an April order by the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that directed Verizon to hand over data from millions of Americans' telephone calls and described how the data should be stored and accessed.
Also on Wednesday, the Guardian newspaper reported that U.S. intelligenceanalysts can use a secret National Security Agency program to scour wide-spanning databases tracking online traffic, citing documents from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
In training materials cited by the Guardian the NSA calls the XKeyscore program its "widest-reaching" system that covers "nearly everything a typical user does on the Internet."
Snowden's ongoing release of secret surveillance information to U.S. and European media has sparked an uproar in the United States and abroad over revelations that U.S. intelligence agencies collected data on phone calls and other communications of Americans and foreign citizens as a tool to fight terrorism.