NSA tries to reassure residents, staff in Augusta area

Officials at the National Security Agency sought to reassure Americans this week that their privacy is protected, including in the Augusta area, where one leader said the organization’s 4,000 employees at Fort Gordon are not to blame for the exposure of a post-9/11 surveillance program that traced phone calls and e-mails to learn of potential terrorist threats.

“The ongoing national dialogue is not about your performance,” Army Gen. Keith B. Alexander, the director of the NSA, said in a statement to the organization’s 30,000-member work force, which includes civilians and soldiers housed in the 1-year-old Cryptologic Center on Fort Gordon.

In his address, Alexander praised his staff for executing national security responsibilities with “equal and full respect for civil liberties and privacy.”

“The issue is one that is partly fueled by the sensational nature of the leaks and the way their timing has been carefully orchestrated to inflame and embarrass,” Alexander said of the release of top-secret information about U.S. and British government surveillance programs to the media by Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor and employee of the Central Intelligence Agency.

NSA officials said this week that the challenge of Snowden’s leaks is exacerbated by a lack of public understanding of the safeguards in place and little awareness of the outcomes that surveillance yields.

Snowden – believed to be stranded at a Moscow airport – has applied for political asylum to about 30 countries and on Tuesday neared an agreement with Venezuela or Nicaragua.

“The National Security Agency is unwavering in its respect for U.S. laws and policies,” NSA spokeswoman Vanee’ Vines said in response to an e-mail from The Augusta Chronicle asking what effect local NSA operations have on the privacy of area residents.

Vines said there is a robust internal and external oversight structure in which all three branches of government play a key role, along with a rigorous internal compliance program.

“NSA’s mission is to protect the nation and safeguard our citizens’ privacy and civil liberties,” Vines added. “It’s not an either/or proposition. We can and must do both – and we do.”

On June 21, records show, the NSA provided more than 50 cases to both the House and Senate Intelligence committees that show the U.S. government’s sweeping surveillance programs have legally foiled about 50 terrorist plots nationwide and in 20 other countries.

On top of that case study, Alexander said, a report issued by the Senate Judiciary in June 2012 emphasized that the government has implemented its intelligence authorities in a responsible manner since new surveillance measures were approved by Congress after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

In March 2012, the NSA officially opened a $286 million complex at Fort Gordon to develop a cryptologic enterprise that is “resilient, agile and effective” in battling current and future threats, officials said.

“Through four years of oversight, the committee has not identified a single case in which a government official engaged in willful effort to circumvent or violate the law,” the report stated.

“That’s an incredible record and a testament to NSA’s staunch commitment to protecting and upholding the privacy and civil liberties of the American people even as we keep our nation safe,” Alexander wrote in his statement. “This has been accomplished by the extraordinary people at NSA, the real heroes, working alongside our partners within the Intelligence Community.”

President Obama and Congress remain engaged in a public dialogue to maintain or possibly enhance national security, while making sure the American public gets the “rest of the story,” Alexander said.

“The Deputy Director, the Senior Leadership Team and I will continue to work this hard and take the heat,” Alexander’s statement to his staff said. “We need you to focus on our primary mission of defending our nation and our allies. Thank you for all you do to support our mission every day of the year.”

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