Your privacy versus catching a terrorist ring, should there really be any question?

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Since Edward Snowden’s revelations about government surveillence, we know more about how the National Security Agency has been interpreting Section 215 of the Patriot Act and Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. We’ve learned some new words —“bulk metadata,” “selector,” “reasonable articulable suspicion,” “emphatic-access restriction”—but we don’t really know how much of this works in practice.

The intelligence community isn’t used to explaining itself in public, but over the past few months, with much prodding by Congress and the press, it has taken some small, tentative steps. Last week, I spent an hour with General Keith B. Alexander, who retired in March after eight years as the director of the N.S.A. The forces pushing for omnivorous data collection are larger than any one person, but General Alexander’s role has been significant.

Here are excerpts from the interview.

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