WASHINGTON — General Keith Alexander, chief of the National Security Agency, revealed Wednesday that the NSA once tested whether it could track Americans’ cellphone locations, in addition to its practice of sweeping up broad information about calls made.
Alexander and James Clapper, director of National Intelligence, testified at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on proposed reforms to the NSA’s surveillance of phone and Internet usage around the world, exposed in June by former NSA analyst Edward Snowden. Neither spy chief discussed proposed reforms; instead they were asked about new potential abuses that have come to light.
Alexander denied a New York Times report published Saturday that said the NSA searched social networks of Americans searching for foreign terror connections, and detailed 12 previously revealed cases of abuse by NSA employees who used the network for unsanctioned missions, such as spying on a spouse. He said all employees were caught and most were disciplined.
Alexander and Clapper told lawmakers that the government shutdown that began Tuesday over a budget impasse is damaging the intelligence community’s ability to guard against threats. They said they are keeping counterterrorism staff at work as well as those providing intelligence to troops in Afghanistan, but that some 70 percent of the civilian workforce has been furloughed.
Congress is considering changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that some believe allows the NSA too much freedom in gathering US data as part of spying on targets overseas. Alexander told the committee that his agency once tested, in 2010 and 2011, whether it could track Americans’ cellphone locations, but he says the NSA does not use that capability, leaving that to the FBI to build a criminal or foreign intelligence case against a suspect and track him.
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“This may be something that is a future requirement for the country but it is not right now because when we identify a number, we give it to the FBI,” Alexander said. “When they get their probable cause, they can get the locational data.”
Alexander refused to answer questions last week from Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, about whether his agency had ever collected or planned to collect “cell-site” data, as it is called, saying it was classified, but the general said the NSA released the information in letters to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees ahead of the Judiciary Committee meeting Wednesday.
Wyden was not satisfied with Alexander’s answer.
“After years of stonewalling on whether the government has ever tracked or planned to track the location of law-abiding Americans through their cellphones, once again, the intelligence leadership has decided to leave most of the real story secret — even when the truth would not compromise national security,” he said.
Alexander acknowledged his agency collects data from social networks and other databases to hunt foreign terror suspects but is not using the information to build private files on Americans. He said the operations are only used in pursuing foreign agents and sweeping up information on Americans if they are connected to the suspects.
Alexander said that not all social network searches are authorized by the secret FISA court, but he added the agency’s searches are proper and audited internally. The authority flows from a presidential executive order dating back to the Reagan administration, he said.
Alexander called a recent New York Times report on the searches inaccurate. The Times said the NSA exploits huge collections of personal data to create sophisticated graphs of some Americans’ social connections. The Times said the private data included Facebook posts and banking, flight, GPS location, and voting records.
Alexander said collecting such private metadata is the most important way to track a potential terrorist.
As for when NSA analysts abused their spying powers, Alexander told senators none of them involved the programs that collect American telephone records or e-mail data.
“Nine of those were abroad,” he said. “Three were [in the United States] but involved persons abroad on two of those. And one was on a spouse or girlfriend.”
Alexander said all had been disciplined, and had retired, resigned, or been reprimanded, except for one where there was not enough evidence.