The fact that the NSA collected cell-site data is a big deal. But so is the fact they admitted it.

October 3, 2013

Senator Ron Wyden (Harry Hamburg/AP)

Sen. Ron Wyden's strategy is working.

Days after the Oregon Democrat asked whether the NSA had ever collected geolocation information on U.S. citizens, the agency's director, Gen. Keith Alexander, admitted Wednesday that it had gathered data from cellular towers on a limited basis.

It wasn't an off-the-cuff disclosure or a slip of the tongue. The statement had been planned.

As the New York Times reported Wednesday, the government intended to reveal the existence of the pilot program via the prepared Senate testimony of James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence:

“In 2010 and 2011 NSA received samples in order to test the ability of its systems to handle the data format, but that data was not used for any other purpose and was never available for intelligence analysis purposes,” the draft answer says, adding that the NSA has promised to notify Congress and seek the approval of a secret surveillance court in the future before any locational data was collected using Section 215.

Senior intelligence officials have tried all kinds of tactics to avoid talking about the geolocation program. Alexander's most recent exchange with Wyden had the general deflecting by saying he couldn't discuss it in an unclassified setting. The NSA likely could have continued its rearguard action indefinitely if it wanted; the rhetoric surrounding the surveillance debate has by now settled into a familiar set of talking points that partisans on both sides of the issue can rattle off with ease.

Yet somebody within the government now seems to recognize that the longer it withholds the answer Wyden seeks, the worse off the NSA will be. Of all the revelations we've gotten this year about the NSA's programs, the one about geolocation is among the few that were not the result of an Edward Snowden leak. Yes, it's significant that the NSA collected cell-site data, but it's arguably even more significant that we learned about it from the very agency that's now being scrutinized by the public. However opaque that institution is, something inside it is changing.

For weeks, Wyden has been dropping hints about geolocation. When he confronts the NSA head-on, its leaders slip out of his rhetorical clutches. He shouldn't have to try so hard to extract these admissions. But at least it's paying off.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecom, broadband and digital politics. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.
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