NSA Director Grilled About Collection of Cell Location Data

NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander faced questions about whether the spy agency collects cell location data on Americans yesterday during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing.

Did we hear the next shoe to drop in the NSA surveillance saga?

Yesterday before a hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, asked some pointed questions of NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander regarding whether the agency collects cell tower location data in addition to metadata from cell phone calls. That information, used by law enforcement in investigations with a warrant, would help the U.S. spy agency pinpoint the physical location of subjects of investigations.

Alexander moved around what sounded like a rhetorical question from the senator, with a stock answer that a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order would be required if the government wished to seek cell site information as part of the bulk collection of cellphone records.

“What I don’t want to do is put out in unclassified form anything that’s classified,” Alexander said.

With the promise of additional leaks coming from the cache of documents stolen by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, was Sen. Wyden trying to head the next disclosure off at the pass?

Wyden was animated in grilling Alexander yesterday. He prefaced his questions about the collection of cell site data with a monologue scolding the NSA and the intelligence community for not being up front about surveillance from the outset.

“You built an intelligence collection system that deceived the American people repeatedly. Time after time, the American people were told one thing about domestic surveillance in public forums while government agencies did something else,” Wyden said. “That’s a loss of trust that cannot be rebuilt.”

The Senate Intelligence Committee has oversight over federal intelligence activities, and a good number of the members lobbied to maintain the NSA’s ability to keep surveillance activities alive in the name of national security and foiling terrorist activities. While the arguments for and against stayed true to party lines for the most part, it was mostly friendly fire for Alexander and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

Sen. Dan Coats, R-Indiana, admonished the media for how it’s reported the scandal, calling it “disturbing” that the despite the declassified information provided in public forums, analysis by the media has not always been accurate, in his opinion.

“We’ve been frustrated on countering the popular narrative,” Clapper said. “We’ve done some risk management by opening as much as we can, recognizing the importance for transparency and the importance of regaining the trust of the American people.”

That transparency, Clapper said, also benefits America’s adversaries.

“They go to school on that too,” Clapper said. “Fundamentally, if we don’t have the trust and confidence of the American people, then all of that is for naught. We have tried to err on the side of transparency and openness, but there are risks here.”

Alexander, who spoke earlier this week at the Billington Cybersecurity Summit in Washington, invoked the September 11 attacks on a number of occasions, and reiterated that had the intelligence community not been able to collect bulk cellphone records through Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, America would have suffered additional terrorist attacks since.

“The American people don’t have a forum where we can have a classified discussion. We can’t reveal information we have,” Alexander said. “We have a process set up to bring information to Congress and the courts and share that with the FBI and go after bad people who intend to do us harm. I’d much rather sit here today defend what we’re doing than be here telling you why we failed to connect the dots again.”

In the meantime, Wyden and Colorado Democrat Sen. Mark Udall pushed a bill before the legislature called the Intelligence Oversight and Surveillance Reform Act, which would reform surveillance activities and prohibit bulk collection of cell data. This runs in parallel with another bill proposed by Senate Intelligence Committee chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., that would propose reforms yet preserve the NSA’s ability to collect phone records on foreign targets and Americans.

“There is growing, bipartisan sentiment in Colorado and across the country that the way the NSA and our intelligence agencies are balancing Americans’ privacy rights and our security is fundamentally out of whack. We need to end the NSA’s collection of millions of innocent Americans’ private phone records and focus on the real problem: terrorists and spies,”¬†Udall said in a press release announcing the bill.¬†“These aren’t vague or abstract threats to our liberty. These dragnet searches are happening right now. I am proud to lead this bipartisan push to protect Americans’ privacy rights and ensure that our pursuit of security does not trample our constitutional liberties.”

Wyden’s bill would create an independent advocate who would argue against the government in the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court; the government is generally the only one arguing before the court, Wyden’s bill says. The act would also prohibit the intelligence community from conducting warrantless searches for cell and email data on Americans.

Feinstein, meanwhile, said domestic collection of metadata does not equal surveillance and argued the NSA’s activities were lawful. Her bill is an attempt to enhance public perception of the NSA’s program. Her bill would require the NSA to publicly report how often it access its database of call metadata and shorten how long that data is stored. Feinstein said her bill would also put the NSA director before the Senate for confirmation.

For the time being, the NSA’s bulk collection continues unabated and more Snowden leaks are expected. Alexander told the committee, when asked, that there is no upper limit on the number of records the NSA may collect and that the American people should trust the oversight and compliance requirements NSA agents must oblige in order to access and investigate data that’s collected.

“I believe it is in the nation’s best interests to put all phone records into a lockbox so that we can search it when needed, yes,” Alexander said.

Image courtesy Razor512 Flickr stream

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