© Reuters. NSA Deputy Director Ledgett answers questions during the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act reform bill passed by the House while on Capitol Hill in Washington.
By Warren Strobel and John Walcott
FORT MEADE, Maryland (Reuters) – The U.S. government should have made public the existence of a program that absorbed data from Americans’ phone calls in bulk before former contractor Edward Snowden leaked its existence, it said. on Tuesday the deputy director of the National Security Agency. .
Richard Ledgett, who will retire next month, said in an interview with Reuters that revealing the secret program would have been difficult. But, he said, doing so could have mitigated the damage caused by Snowden.
“That’s one where you might have to say yes,” Ledgett said in his office at NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland. “That’s one where it might have been less shocking when Snowden did what he did.”
Ledgett’s comments, which echo the sentiments of some former top US officials, come as the US intelligence community is stepping up its efforts to convince Congress to reauthorize other controversial surveillance programs.
Those programs allow intelligence agencies to collect large amounts of digital communications from foreigners living abroad, but incidentally, they capture communications from an unknown number of Americans.
The programs, authorized by Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, expire on December 31 unless Congress takes action.
Ledgett said the NSA, whose mission is to intercept adversaries’ communications while protecting sensitive US government networks, had learned from Snowden’s experience.
“We are being very open about the program (Section 702), and we will be,” he said.
Privacy advocates have repeatedly demanded that the government share an estimate of how many Americans are trapped by the programs authorized by Section 702.
Intelligence officials have refused to do so. But Ledgett, speaking early Tuesday at a forum sponsored by the Aspen Institute, said “yes” when asked if an estimate would be provided before the end of the year.
Snowden’s disclosure of the Big Phone Data program, which captured information about calls such as numbers and timestamps, but not their actual content, sparked congressional hearings and court battles.
In 2015, Congress passed a law that replaced it with a more limited system while installing new transparency measures on US surveillance activity.
US officials argued that the program was legal and aimed to find violent militants or other adversaries in communication with allies within the United States.
In the 50-minute interview on the large NSA campus outside of Washington, Ledgett expressed concern about the vulnerability of critical US infrastructure to another nation’s cyberattack.
“All of the major cyber threat actors that concern us have efforts, they have that capability,” he said.
“Can you eliminate a traffic system? Absolutely. Can you eliminate communication systems? Absolutely. Can you eliminate oil and gas distribution systems, and power distribution systems? Absolutely can … We are more vulnerable than most . “
He also gave a little insight into the secret cyber battles that take place globally, twenty-four hours a day.
In late 2015, he said, another nation broke into an unclassified US government computer network, and the NSA was called in to help.
In the past, when an adversary realized that he had been discovered, he would withdraw. “Like a turtle, touch them and they will pull on their shell,” Ledgett said.
“What happened here was that they fought back. So it became a kind of hand-to-hand combat,” he said. “We would remove their malware. They would implement new malware, even though they knew we were on the system. They were just trying to avoid us.”
He declined to name the attacker or the computer system involved.