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CIA, FBI, and NSA taking steps to limit intelligence leaks

Thursday, 8 Aug 2013 | 5:49 PM ET
General Keith B. Alexander, Director of the National Security Agency (NSA) and Commander of U.S. Cyber Command (L); John O. Brennan, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) (C); and Robert S. Mueller III, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) (R).
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General Keith B. Alexander, Director of the National Security Agency (NSA) and Commander of U.S. Cyber Command (L); John O. Brennan, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) (C); and Robert S. Mueller III, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) (R).

Three of the nation's top intelligence officials say their agencies are taking steps to limit access to classified data following recent intelligence leaks by the likes of PFC Bradley Manning and NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

CIA Director John Brennan, NSA Director Keith Alexander and FBI Director Robert Mueller made a rare joint appearance at a cyber security conference at Fordham University in New York Thursday.

Alexander, whose agency is under fire for its surveillance programs, said the NSA is working to reduce "by 90 percent" the number of system administrators—instead using technology so fewer individuals come into contact with sensitive information.

(Read more: NSA chief on hecklers: 'This is an emotional issue')

But Brennan said technology "can only do so much" to limit leaks, and that training is also a key.

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Thursday, 1 Aug 2013 | 7:00 AM ET
NSA chief General Keith Alexander discusses Sen. Wyden's remarks, hecklers and what he thinks should happen to leaker Edward Snowden. With CNBC's Eamon Javers.

The three also defended the controversial surveillance programs, which Alexander said have been "grossly mischaracterized by the press."

"No one has knowingly or willfully disobeyed the law," Alexander said, echoing President Obama's comment on NBC's Tonight Show this week that "there is no domestic spying program."

But Alexander said modern technology makes surveillance necessary.

"The real issue is the devices you use, terrorists use," Alexander said.

(Related video: FBI says economic data is vulnerable)

Brennan said the intelligence community is "trying to optimize national security ... and optimize privacy," but noted that in the Internet age, privacy has a different meaning than it used to have.

The three did not address the security threat that has led to the closing of 19 U.S. diplomatic posts worldwide this week. They would not answer questions from the media, responding only to pre-screened questions from the audience of cyber security specialists.

All called for greater cooperation from the private sector in dealing with the cyber threat.

"In the future, the cyber threat will equal or even eclipse the terrorist threat," Mueller said.