The majority of reports based on Snowden’s disclosures have been published in the Guardian, including the first disclosure, in June, that the NSA was secretly feeding a huge database of the records of phone calls of millions of Americans.
Since then, a number of other media outlets have published reports based on some top-secret documents disclosed by Snowden, including, most recently, the New York Times. It reported on Sept. 28 that the NSA has been exploiting its huge collections of data to create sophisticated graphs of some Americans’ social connections, for foreign intelligence purposes.
Alexander said the report, based upon an internal NSA memo from January 2011, that lifted previous restrictions on “discover and track” connections between foreign intelligence targets and people in the US, were “inaccurate and wrong.”
Asked if he was collecting data to build portraits of social networks, Alexander said: “No.”
However, Alexander then appeared to row back on that position, stressing that the NSA was obtaining supplementary information, under Executive Order 12333, to connect data they already have “to social networks abroad.”
He said the order, which would not be subject to oversight mechanisms that apply to other programs, was still operating.
Earlier, Leahy spoke about the bill he is drafting to limit the intelligence agencies surveillance reach in partnership with Republican Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, who chairs the Crime and Terrorism Subcommittee of the House of Representatives.
Their legislation would end the bulk collection of phone records under section 215 of the Patriot Act, and is likely to make some additional reforms. The Leahy-Sensenbrenner legislation has a good chance of rising above the dozen or so other bills being proposed in the aftermath of the Snowden disclosures.
Leahy and Sensenbrenner are heavyweight politicians from opposite sides of the political spectrum. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Sensenbrenner introduced the Patriot Act, a law he now says was misinterpreted by spy agencies and used to justify surveillance programs that infringe on constitutional rights.
“Just because something is technologically possible, and just because something may be deemed technically legal, does not mean it is the right thing to do,” Leahy said.
“The government has not made the case that at the bulk collection of phone records is an effective tool,” he added.
Leahy said he had reviewed the classified case the intelligence community makes for the phone collection program, “and I find it to be unconvincing.”
Senator Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican on the committee, said that recent revelations that NSA staff had used the agency’s powerful surveillance tools to spy on their spouses had fed into a “broader crisis of trust” that the intelligence establishment would struggle to recover from.
Alexander assured the committee that most of the violations of NSA rules related to “foreign persons in foreign places.”
In opening statements, Clapper and Alexander echoed almost word for word the evidence they provided the Senate Intelligence Committee on Sept. 26, arguing that media outlets have endangered national security by publishing Snowden’s disclosures, and claiming that intelligence agencies are not interested in spying on US citizens.