The head of the NSA, General Keith Alexander, appeared on John Oliver's new HBO news show "Last Week Tonight" and in a strange interview attempted to defend and deflect the conversation about the NSA debate.
Here is the official Youtube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k8lJ85pfb_E
In the interview, John actually made some surprising stabs at the NSA chief. He didn't let the General use the show for a pulpit to promote an agenda but did allow him ample room to respond. The full interview text is below and the parts we feel were the most important are in bold.
The transcript of the interview of General Alexander on Last Week Tonight.
John: "Looking back at your time with the NSA, do you have any regrets such as not retiring one year earlier."
General Alexander: "You know i've thought about that, and you know at times you think "if i had just retired , somebody else would've had this burden". It would've been wrong for me to leave that for somebody else to do.
John: "Do you think that the NSA is suffering from a perception problem with the American people at the moment, bearing in mind that the answer to that is yes?"
General Alexander: "Absolutely. You know the first assumption is that you're collecting on the American people. And therein lies the problem because the tr..." (he was going to say truth, caught himself, and reworded it) "reality is the target is not the American people."
John: "Now the target is not the American people, but it seems that too often you miss the target, and hit the American person standing next to him going Whoa! Whoa! Him!?"
General Alexander: "But you see, We're not just out there gathering US communications and listening to their phone calls, or collecting their emails, but that's the first thing that people jump to."
John: "But, you are out there doing that, you're just saying that you're then not reading them. You are gathering that data."
General Alexander: "No. No. So in terms of going after US infrastructure or sitting in here in the United States [with persons A and B] talking in the United States, we aren't collecting that. We don't collect that. We do collect the metadata. A to from number, date, time group, and duration of a call. That's all that's in there."
John: "That's not nothing. That's significant information otherwise you wouldn't want it. Is this the argument then that to get the needle you need the haystack."
General Alexander: "That's part of the argument."
John: "Right but what peoples concerns i think are that you're not just taking the haystack. You're taking the whole farm, and the county, and the state, and you've now got some photos of the farmer's wife in the shower as well."
General Alexander: "So NSA is not allowed to go out and do that it's own. It has oversight. So what the courts, congress, and administration do is say "if you're gonna do this it has to comport with the constitution." So I think the question the American people really have to ask is "are we doing the right things to protect the nation and our civil liberties and privacy." I am the biggest advocate of freedom of the networks, internet. If we could come up with a way of segregating all of the terrorist communications, one it would really help us, and (it would also) protect our civil liberties and privacy. And you know, there was a great statement by somebody... What we really need to do is, all of the bad guys need to be on this section of the internet, and they only operate over (there) and all good people operate over here, and all bad guys over (there)."
John: "Are you talking about Pinterest?"
General Alexander: "No, you know, bad guy data."
John: "Oh i thought you meant all of the worst people in the world in one area. So I thought you were talking about Pinterest, because that seems to be kind of where they assemble."
General Alexander: "Oh... that could be."
John: "They are the worst people. "Oh look i've found this gopher bedspread. I'd love that." Shut up!
General Alexander: *laughs* "Sorry I have not seen that."
John: "That's what you haven't seen!? As director of the NSA you haven't seen Pinterest!?"
General Alexander: "That's right."
John: "So that's where the terrorists could have been hiding all these years."
General Alexander: "And i've led a sheltered life."
John: "How much data do you need to keep Americans safe?"
General Alexander: "That's a tough, tough question. I don't know the answer to that. Here's what I do know. I look at the last (13) years since 9/11, we have had a tremendous and remarkable record. That wasn't by accident."
John: "But you're always going to err on the side, aren't you, of wanting more rather than less, to be safe?"
General Alexander: "Well absolutely, and the court is going to take just the opposite view and say "hey do you have the necessary rationale for having this data." "
John: "That's what i'm saying is that those two principles of the NSA are built to clash. You have one side saying "let's collect everything" and one side saying "let's protect privacy." Those two things don't work together."
General Alexander: "Well... you have to balance them and I think you can do both."
John: "It's been said that your motto was "Collect everything." is that true?"
General Alexander: "For specific problems."
John: "Right, but you do understand that collect everything is also the motto of a hoarder? That's the fundamental principle which ends up with someone living alongside 1500 copies of old newspapers from the 1950's and six mummified cats."
General Alexander: "What I would tell you is, let's go to where that statement applied. Iraq. And the situation was it's 2006 and the issue was the number of casualties for us and our allies were rising."
John: "In your mind, has the NSA ever done something illegal."
General Alexander: "In my time, no. Not that I know of. You know one of the most impressive things that i've seen in my career, was people who made a mistake that could be a huge mistake stepping up to say "i've made a mistake." And in every case to my knowledge, everyone except for twelve individuals stepped forward at the time they made those mistakes."
John: "Right, but you can't say everyone except for twelve. That's like saying "i've never killed anyone, apart from the three people I have buried under my patio at home." "
General Alexander: "...The key issue that i was trying to make is that every time, we reported it. In some cases those who made a mistake didn't report it but were still caught."
John: "Why should the American people trust the NSA?"
General Alexander: "Well, from my perspective, because of what they do to protect this country every day. These are good people, trying to do the right thing."
John: "But much of your reassurance there is based on your own moral code, the idea of you thinking "well I wouldn't abuse this power so why would anyone else?" I would. If i had access to that kind of information I would abuse the hell out of it. I would be looking up information on everyone that I knew. I know that."
General Alexander: "Everybody goes through the training. They say "John, here's the deal. You're going to get access to this data, but you can't use it for these things and you can't use it for this and you can't use it for that."
John: "Sure i definitely won't do that. Where's my computer?!"
General Alexander: "Right. And as soon as you get on the computer what happens is..."
John: *makes a joke about a scenario of looking up an ex-girlfriend*
General Alexander: "If you were caught doing that, then you would either be removed..."
John: "Or promoted."
General Alexander: "No, or referred to the Department of Justice as we did on several of those cases.
John: "Let's talk about Snowden. What would you like to Snowden to know right now, other than significantly less."
General Alexander: "I would want to sit him down in a classified setting and say "do you want to see the damage you've done?" and lay that out on the terror side, so that he knows in his heart, and he would have to live with that for the rest of his life."
John: "But you're giving information to the one man on earth guaranteed to leak it. Is it any wonder that Americans are concerned about your judgement regarding their data?"
General Alexander: "Well you know you're asking ideally if we had a way of sitting him down, and that he's not going to go leak more data, you could show him "Do you understand what you've done?" and from my perspective, I don't think he understands the true damage that he has done."
John: "Right. Okay so finally lets talk about branding. The NSA's brand has been damaged. I think that's fair to say right?"
General Alexander: "Right."
John: "As we've learned with blackwater you don't have to change the substance of anything you do as long you visibly rebrand. So let's try this. The Washington redskins. It's a slightly less tainted brand than yours.
General Alexander: "Yeah but, probably not a good one to go with."
John: "Sorry. Okay. No good. How about this?
General Alexander: "Mr. Tiggles."
John: "Mr. Tiggles is not just the mascot. It is also the name of the agency like Chuck E Cheese. Then a journalist can't say the NSA is storing huge amounts of data on foreign countries instead it is saying Mr. Tiggles is storing huge amounts of data isn't he clever, he's in a boot! Aww you've massively overstepped your bounds Mr. Tiggles but I can't stay mad at you! You just wanna keep me safe!"
General Alexander: "Yeah. I don't think that's gonna work."
John: "Okay well how about re-branding yourself as a great listener."
General Alexander: "The only agency in government that really listens!"
John: "That's what i'm saying! That's what i'm saying! Because in many ways the NSA is like the perfect partner. So let me introduce you to the new NSA, Trevor.
General Alexander: "I think this is good!"
John: "Tell us about your day. Everything about it. How's Mohammed at work? How is he? What's he been doing?"
General Alexander: *nodding* "Trevor."
John: "So if you had to choose one of these. Which would it be?
General Alexander: "Well I think that is something you could perhaps have people vote on.