U.S. officials declined to directly answer lawmakers’ questions on Thursday about the full scope of the National Security Agency’s collection of Americans’ data, including whether it has ever sought to acquire large volumes of cellphone location information or other records.
NSA Director Keith Alexander dodged questions by a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee about whether the agency has ever tried to augment its broad collection of virtually all Americans’ phone-call records by gathering data that would indicate the callers’ locations. He noted that intelligence officials had given a classified answer to the question.
“If you’re responding to my question by not answering it because you think it’s a classified matter, that is your right,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) told Alexander at a hearing about the government’s intelligence-gathering programs.
“We will continue to explore that,” Wyden said, “because I believe this is something that the American people have a right to know — whether the NSA has ever collected or made plans to collect cell site information.”
Questions by Wyden and Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) suggested that the agency has at least sought if not won permission to expand its domestic collection activities beyond what has been publicly acknowledged.
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Their pointed questioning of officials stood in contrast to mostly sympathetic lines of querying from other panel members, who made clear that they support the phone-logs program as a vital counterterrorism tool and accused the media of inaccurate and misleading coverage. Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said such coverage “has led to an unfortunate . . . skepticism and distrust” of the intelligence community.
The existence of the phone-records collection, and its authorization by a federal surveillance court, was revealed in June when the Guardian newspaper in Britain published a court order to a phone company leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Leaks regarding other NSA programs ensued and have put the administration on the defensive, forcing it, as Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. said Thursday, to “lower . . . the threshold” for disclosure.
Alexander and other officials stressed that the call database contains only phone numbers and the time and duration of calls, but no conversation content, subscriber names or cell site location. But Alexander acknowledged that the NSA is interested in compiling the largest national database possible, and that there is no limit to the number of records that can be gathered. The storehouse holds billions of records, former officials have told The Washington Post.
“Is it the goal of the NSA to collect the phone records of all Americans?” Udall asked.
“I believe it is in the nation’s best interests to put all the phone records into a lockbox that we could search when the nation needs to do it, yes,” Alexander said.
The government has claimed the authority to gather the data under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, also known as the “business records” provision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The FISA court in 2006 agreed that the government could use that statute to order phone companies to hand over “all call detail records” daily to the NSA.
Asked by Udall if that statute gave NSA the authority to collect other data — such as utility bills — Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole offered a qualified answer. “It’s given them the authority to collect other bulk records if they can show that it is necessary to find something relevant to a foreign intelligence investigation of particular types. . . . It’s not just all bulk records. But it’s also not no business records. It’s all dependent on the purpose.”
At the hearing’s outset, Clapper asserted that the leaks “have been extremely damaging” to national security. “These disclosures are threatening our ability to collect intelligence and keep our country safe,” he said. “There’s no way to erase or make up for the damage that has already been done. We anticipate more as we continue our assessment.”
Feinstein said she and Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), the ranking Republican on the panel, have begun drafting legislation that would reform the nation’s surveillance system, including a measure that would require Senate confirmation of the NSA director. Their bill also would limit access to phone records collected by the agency, and reduce the length of time the records can be held.
Wyden, Udall and other lawmakers have introduced reform legislation that would, among other things, end the phone records collection, while allowing for a more limited program.
On Thursday, Wyden accused U.S. officials of not being more forthcoming about intelligence-collection programs.
“The leadership of your agencies built an intelligence-collection system that repeatedly deceived the American people,” he said. “Time and time again, the American people were told one thing about domestic surveillance in public forums while government agencies did something else in private.”