WASHINGTON — The nation’s top intelligence official sidestepped questions Thursday from a senator about whether the National Security Agency has ever used Americans’ cellphone signals to collect information on their whereabouts that would allow tracking of the movements of individual callers.
Asked twice by Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, whether NSA had ever collected or made plans to collect such data, NSA chief General Keith Alexander answered both times by reading from a letter provided to senators who had asked the same question last summer. He also cited a classified version of the letter that was sent to senators and said, “What I don’t want to do . . . is put out in an unclassified forum anything that’s classified.”
Wyden promised to keep asking.
“I believe this is something the American people have a right to know, whether NSA has ever collected or made plans to collect cell site information,” Wyden said.
The testy exchange at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing illustrates the wider tension that has grown between the public and the US intelligence community, following disclosures by Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old former systems analyst on contract to the NSA, about the extensive NSA collection of telephone and e-mail records of millions of Americans.
The panel’s bipartisan leadership used the hearing to promote their version of legislation to change the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act. The lawmakers seek to trim NSA’s authority to access and analyze US phone records and provide new protections to Americans’ privacy. They also want to broaden the government’s spying powers to allow monitoring of terror suspects who travel to the United States after being tracked overseas by the NSA.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California and chairwoman of the committee, said the legislation would “strictly limit access to the . . . phone metadata records, expressly prohibit the collection of the content of phone calls,” and limit the time such US phone call data could be kept.
Such records show the date and length of calls, and the numbers dialed.
But Feinstein’s proposed legislation would not stop the bulk collection of telephone and e-mail records.
A separate bipartisan group of four senators, including Wyden, unveiled legislation earlier this week to end those bulk collections.
Feinstein and the committee’s top Republican, Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, defended US intelligence efforts, as did Alexander and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper — saying that while they collect US bulk records, they do not listen in on individual Americans’ phone calls or read their e-mails without a court order.
Alexander and Clapper spoke of wanting to cooperate with suggested changes to win back the public’s trust.