NSA doesn't spy on Americans, chief says

Agency hasn't the means or will, House panel told

April 13, 2000|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

In a highly unusual public appearance, the director of the nation's largest and most secret spy organization told Congress yesterday that his agency does not spy on Americans.

Lt. Gen. Michael V. Hayden told House Intelligence Committee members that the National Security Agency has neither the means nor the desire to sift through the conversations, e-mails and communications of U.S. citizens, and he outlined federal statutes that prevent it from trying.

Hayden, testifying at the hearing along with CIA director George J. Tenet, also disputed recent reports that NSA spies on European companies to collect industrial secrets and pass them to U.S. companies. But both acknowledged that NSA collects information from foreign businesses for "questions of significant economic events -- famine, floods -- and on arms sales, chemical trading, money laundering and drug laundering," Hayden said.

Tenet later expanded on that list, saying the agency spies on European companies when they "bribe, lie, cheat or steal" in business dealings, and sends the information to agencies such as the Commerce Department for action.

The two-hour hearing was largely a response to months of bad publicity that has included European charges of business espionage, a three-day computer shutdown at the NSA that cost $1.5 million to fix, and criticism at home that the agency operates without oversight, sucking up sensitive information about Americans like a "giant vacuum."

Hayden appeared before the panel, a senior NSA official said, to "put a face on the agency" that for almost four decades stayed hidden behind a wall of secrecy. The image makeover could help agency efforts to secure funding to overhaul its computer systems.

"If we do not build up the trust of the American people," the official said, "we can't ask for additional resources to make the transformation. ... In the past, NSA was given a hall pass because of a big, ugly bear called the Soviet Union."

Hayden told the committee the agency is prohibited from collecting and retaining information about "U.S. persons" -- defined as a U.S. citizen anywhere in the world or a foreigner living in the United States -- unless they are acting on behalf of a foreign power. Even then, he said, the agency must get the approval of the attorney general or a court designated by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act -- a precaution set up after the NSA admitted spying on civil rights leaders and antiwar protesters in the 1960s and 1970s.

Officials from the American Civil Liberties Union, a frequent critic of the agency, were unimpressed after the hearing.

"What the director didn't say was how often the agency has passed on information about Americans in cases of narcotics trafficking or terrorism, which are very broad, undefined terms," said Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the ACLU in Washington. "What they essentially said today was, `Trust us, we're the government. Trust us, we're the largest spy agency in the world.'"

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