Keith Alexander, former National Security Agency chief, took on the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union on Monday in a verbal gymnastics match billed as the "great debate." The two argued opposite sides in a Bing Pulse/MSNBC debate on mass surveillance at the Aspen Ideas Festival that tried to answer the question, "Is the NSA making us safer?"
Audience members voted on the question after considering both sides of the argument. By the end of the debate, the ACLU's Anthony Romero and fellow members of Team Civil Liberties seemed to be winning.
According to The Atlantic, "In addition to choosing the civil liberties team as the winners by debate's end, roughly three-fourths of the audience said that protecting privacy was more important than keeping safe from terrorism."
Alexander, as he often has both during his government service and after retiring in March, stressed that the threats to the U.S. in the post-9/11 era are many and imposing.
"Threats to our national security are more numerous, widespread, and harder to detect than at any time since World War II," Alexander said in his opening statement. "NSA has key capabilities needed to defend our nation and our allies."
Romero, on the other hand, rejected the premise of the debate for "reductionist terms."
"Of course we need an NSA. The threat of terrorism is real," Romero said.
The real question, he argued, is whether "we need an NSA that's accountable, properly reined in by a more robust system of checks and balances" or an agency "that continues with business as usual. and we've learned a lot about business as usual over the past year -- certainly more than the government ever wanted us to know."
If the NSA's powers are not more effectively corralled, Romero argued, "it will change our democracy and make us less vital. It will also make us less free."
The online poll over the debate isn't finished, but Romero leads. A plurality of online voters, 46 percent, said the NSA is unnecessarily invading privacy.