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Three Exchanges You Should Listen To About NSA Surveillance

Gen. Keith Alexander, the director of the National Security Agency, received a public grilling by members of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday.

We listened to the long hearing and pulled out three sections of audio that, while dry and sometimes boring, are important to understanding the story of the NSA obtaining vast amounts of data about the electronic activity of Americans. As we've reported, at the center of the controversy is a leaked secret court document authorizing the collection of all the calls made by Verizon customers during a three month period.

With that, here are the three pieces of audio you should listen to:

-- An Explanation: Responding to Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Alexander explained why the collection of phone meta-data is important. Alexander framed it in the case of Sept. 11 hijacker Khalid al-Mihdhar. (Here's background from the Sept. 11 Commission report.) What if the NSA had had the ability to track all of his phone connections, even in the past? Perhaps the government could have tracked his conspirators.

-- The Original Request: One of more substantive exchanges came between Alexander and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who zeroed in on the original request of data on all phone calls made by Verizon customers. Alexander said the government doesn't look at that data without further permission from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court. Merkley said that doesn't matter. He wanted to know what in the USA Patriot Act justified the original data dump:

-- Broad Wiretapping: The one question that got an easy answer was one from Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who asked if what NSA leaker Edward Snowden said about being able to wiretap anyone, even the president, was true. Alexander said he knew no way to do that.

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