The director of the US National Security Agency (NSA) has admitted to secret pilot programs to monitor the precise location of Americans through their cellphones, saying the highly intrusive tracking data “may be something that is a future requirement for the country.”
General Keith Alexander said that the pilot programs from 2010 and 2011 were intended to test the compatibility of the location data with the agency’s databases, but were not used for any intelligence analysis purposes.
However, giving evidence to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday last week, Alexander left little doubt that the NSA was interested in a potential dragnet of location data, which would constitute a significant extension of its surveillance powers.
The previous week, before another Senate committee, Alexander evaded questions about whether the NSA had ever collected information from cellphone towers, which helps pinpoint an individual’s movement, suggesting the information might be classified.
Asked on Wednesday by Republican Senator Ted Cruz whether the NSA would ever seek location data of Americans to combat terrorism, Alexander said that would be a possibility, but that the agency currently obtains the information on a case-by-case basis.
“I would just say that 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 can give that to the FBI,” Alexander said. “When they get their probable cause [to justify obtaining the data] they can get the location data that they need.”
In another exchange, Alexander and US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, appealed to Congress not to allow the string of disclosures based on documents provided by whistle-blower Edward Snowden to limit the powers of the intelligence community.
Both men criticized some media reports, which they said were misleading and dangerous to national security. However, in a series of revealing exchanges, they were themselves accused of misleading the public and forced to shed light on the pilot program to obtain cellphone data, as well as another effort to collect huge amounts of social network data on foreign citizens.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy also criticized the information had that been provided to a privileged few lawmakers.
“We get more in the newspapers than we do in the classified briefings that you give us,” Leahy said.
Leahy, a Democrat who is drafting legislation to reform US government surveillance, pressed Alexander and Clapper on the accuracy of their previous testimony.
“Both of you have raised concerns that the media reports about the government’s surveillance programs have been incomplete, inaccurate, misleading,” Leahy said. “I worry that we’re still getting inaccurate and incomplete statements from the administration.”
He drew attention to repeated claims by the intelligence agencies that 54 terrorist attacks had been thwarted by two particular programs.
“That is plainly wrong, but we still get it in letters to members of Congress, [and] we get it in statements,” Leahy said. “These weren’t all plots, and they weren’t all thwarted. The American people are getting left with inaccurate reflection of the NSA’s programs.”
Alexander then conceded that the 54 examples were “not all plots” and only 13 had a nexus in the US. He also admitted there were only “one or possibly two” cases of terrorist activity that would not have been prevented “but for” section 215 of the Patriot Act, which authorizes bulk telephone record collection.