NSA chief admits testing cellphone tracking
Also details a dozen cases of employee abuse of spying power
WASHINGTON — National Security Agency chief Gen. Keith Alexander revealed Wednesday that his spy agency once tested whether it could track Americans’ cellphone locations, in addition to its practice of sweeping broad information about calls made.
Alexander and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on proposed reforms to the NSA’s surveillance of phone and internet usage around the world. But neither spy chief discussed proposed reforms; instead they were questioned about new potential abuses that have come to light since then.
Alexander denied a New York Times report published Saturday that said 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 like spying on a spouse. He said all employees were caught and most were disciplined.
Congress is mulling changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that some believe allows the NSA too much freedom in gathering U.S. 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.
“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.”
He added that his agency reported the tests to both House and Senate intelligence committees, and that the data was never used for intelligence analysis.
Only last week, Alexander refused to answer questions from Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., about whether his agency had ever collected or planned to collect such “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.
As for the incidents when NSA analysts did abuse their spying powers, Alexander told senators none of them involved the programs that collect American telephone records or email data.
The NSA’s inspector general detailed the violation in a letter to Congress that was released last week. Several cases clearly showed government officials using the surveillance system to probe for information about spouses or partners. In one case, an internal investigation found that the official had made internal surveillance queries on the phones of nine foreign women, including his girlfriend, without authorization and had at times listened in on some phone conversations. The same official also collected data on a U.S. person’s phone.
Alexander said all had been disciplined, and had retired, resigned or been reprimanded, except for one where there wasn’t enough evidence to prove wrongdoing.