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NSA chief talks at hackers’ conference in Vegas

LAS VEGAS (AP) – Heckling at a hacker’s conference didn’t faze the head of the National Security Agency.

Army Gen. Keith Alexander remained unapologetic Wednesday in Las Vegas about methods the NSA uses to, in his words, connect the dots and go after bad guys who aim to kill people.

He told the tech-savvy audience in his keynote comments at the annual Black Hat conference at Caesars Palace that the ability to look for patterns in telephone and email communications has stopped terror attacks in the U.S. and other countries.

Alexander even drew laughter when a voice in the overflow crowd shouted that he should read the Constitution. Alexander said he had, and the heckler should, too.

He insisted that it wasn’t true the spy agency listens to specific phone calls and reads emails.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

The head of the U.S. National Security Agency isn’t expected to budge from the position that his mission is to stop terrorists and that his agency’s surveillance program is critical when he addresses a room full of hackers at the Black Hat conference on information security.

Army Gen. Keith Alexander has been unapologetic during recent public appearances about the NSA collecting “metadata” to, in his words, “connect the dots” and “go after bad guys who … hide amongst us to kill our people.”

He insists it wouldn’t be physically possible and is “flat not true” that the spy agency is listening to people’s phone calls and reading their emails.

But the Black Hat conferees that Alexander will face Wednesday are a skeptical and tech-savvy bunch _ attuned to news about former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden leaking classified documents last month and the conviction on Tuesday of U.S. Army Pfc. Bradley Manning on 20 espionage, theft and other charges that could get him life in prison for giving military secrets to WikiLeaks. Manning was acquitted of the more serious charge of aiding the enemy.

“We’re hoping he’ll be addressing current issues head-on,” said Meredith Corley, spokeswoman for the 16th annual Black Hat conference at Caesars Palace. Alexander’s keynote speech was expected to draw most of the 7,000 registered attendees, Corley said.

At Aspen, Alexander unveiled measures including a “two-person rule” to thwart leaks like the disclosures by Snowden, a former computer systems administrator in Hawaii now living at a Russian airport while he seeks asylum in several countries. The rule would require two people to be present when key national security information is accessed or moved.

Alexander also talked in Colorado and Baltimore about creating a 4,000-person “Cyber Command” of offensive and defensive teams _ both to protect Defense Department systems and launch cyberattacks against enemy networks under White House orders.

“We’ve got to have this debate with our country,” the eight-year NSA chief said in Aspen. “How are we going to protect the nation in cyberspace?”

But, “there is risk in having a debate on a national security issue,” he added. “The adversary will learn what we’re trying to do.”

NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines in Washington, D.C., declined Tuesday to provide advance word about Alexander’s speech in Las Vegas. Vines wouldn’t say whether a conference that attracts cyberspace explorers could serve as recruiting ground for the NSA.

But the spy agency chief’s comments are expected to spur lively discussion among government workers, corporate systems analysts and freelance hackers both at the Black Hat events, and at DefCon, a somewhat more counter-culture conference that opens later this week, also in Las Vegas.

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