In between pleas to end the government shutdown that has upwards of 70 percent of the intelligence community furloughed until further notice, NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper spent a significant amount of time before a Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday defending the NSA’s surveillance activities and denouncing recent reports that the agency is building dossiers on Americans based on their social networking activities.
Alexander also confirmed that the NSA implemented a pilot program three years ago to collect cell phone call location data, but stressed the program has since been abandoned.
“This may be something that may be a future requirement for the country, but it is not right now, because when we identify a number, we get that to the FBI and they can get probable cause to get location data, that they need,” Alexander said. “And that’s the reason that we stopped in 2011.”
Alexander prefaced his remarks with a prepared statement, stressing that the data was never used: “In 2010 and 2011 N.S.A. received samples in order to test the ability of its systems to handle the data format, but that data was not used for any other purposes and was never available for intelligence analysis purposes.”
The subject of location data was raised last week by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, yet Alexander did not offer a straight answer, intimating instead that this was classified information.
Alexander sternly denied a New York Times report from the weekend that the NSA is creating graphical connections between individuals based on their social media activities on networks such as Facebook. The report was based on additional documents provided to the media by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The Times said a January 2011 memo from the NSA gave the agency the authority to conduct “large-scale graph analysis on very large sets of communications metadata without having to check foreignness” of the data, which included email addresses and phone call metadata.
“Those reports are inaccurate and wrong,” Alexander said. “What they have taken is the fact that we do take (social) data to enrich it. What’s not in front of those statements is the word ‘foreign.’ Information to understand what the foreign nexus is of the problem set we’re looking at.
“They’re flat out wrong saying we are creating dossiers on Americans,” Alexander added, further saying that under Executive Order 12333, the NSA is able to chain together phone and email records to figure out social network activity abroad, powers signed off on by the Secretary of Defense and Attorney General. Alexander also said that if the intelligence gathered during the course of an investigation pointed toward an American, that data would be turned over to the FBI which would pursue the lead after obtaining a court order.
In the meantime, Clapper, 50-year veteran of the intelligence community, decried the government shutdown.
“On top of the Sequestration cuts, the shutdown seriously damages our ability to protect the safety and security of this nation and its citizens,” Clapper said. “This is not just a beltway issue, but this affects our global capability to support the military, diplomats and policy makers.”
Clapper added that American intelligence agents currently on furlough would be attractive targets for recruitment by adversaries, calling it a “dreamland.”
“From my standpoint, the damage will be worse as the shutdown drags on,” Clapper said.