WASHINGTON -- Gen. Keith Alexander, the head of the National Security Agency, acknowledged on Sunday that there is no foolproof way to prevent future leaks of U.S. intelligence information along the lines of what Edward Snowden revealed several weeks ago.
Speaking to ABC's "This Week," Alexander said that the agency had taken steps to ensure that they knew which officials -- whether working for the government or a private contractor -- were accessing sensitive information at a given time. But the NSA still was dependent on that individual to honor his oath of office and keep that information private. And on that front, there is no way to guarantee total compliance.
"Clearly the system did not work as it should have," said Alexander. "[Snowden] betrayed the trust and confidence we had in him. This is an individual with top secret clearance whose duty it was to administer these networks. He betrayed that confidence and stole some of our secrets."
"We are now putting in place actions that would give us the ability to track our system administrators, what they're doing, what they're taking -- a two-man rule," he added. "We've changed the passwords. But at the end of the day, we have to trust that our people are going to do the right thing. This is an extremely important mission, defending our country. When they betray that trust, well, then we have to push it over to the Department of Justice and others for the appropriate action." (Emphasis added.)
The issue of who has access to top-level intelligence information has taken on greater importance in recent weeks following the leaks of details about NSA surveillance operations by Snowden, a contractor with firm Booz Allen. And it shocked many political observers, including some public officials, that someone in his position would have access to such information.
Whether the U.S. government can or should now wean itself of private contractors where highly sensitive intelligence is concerned is now a topic of healthy debate. Alexander argued, however, that the issue is not whether private or public officials should have access to sensitive information, but whether or not the people with access can be trusted.