NSA chief admits testing U.S. cellphone tracking
The admission by NSA chief Keith Alexander to a Senate committee solved part of a mystery about the spying agency’s involvement with data that could reveal the day-to-day movements of every cellphone user.
Tribune Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — The National Security Agency (NSA) collected samples of records showing where Americans were when they made cellphone calls in 2010 and 2011 to test how it could obtain and process the data in bulk, but decided not to move forward with the plan, intelligence officials disclosed Wednesday.
The admission by NSA chief Keith Alexander to a Senate committee solved part of a mystery about the spying agency’s involvement with data that could reveal the day-to-day movements of — and personal information about — every cellphone user.
Spurred by leaks from former contractor Edward Snowden, the NSA has admitted it collects in bulk the “to and from” calling records of Americans, but has denied collecting the location information that attaches to each cellphone call. It is now clear the agency considered doing that.
The test-run data were “never available for intelligence analysis purposes,” Alexander said, and in June, the NSA promised to notify Congress before any further location data were collected. “I would just say that this may be something that is a future requirement for the country, but it is not right now,” Alexander said.
The FBI can get location data on suspects through court-approved, case-specific warrants, he said. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who receives classified briefings as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, had been pressing the NSA to acknowledge its flirtation with bulk collection of U.S. location data. He said in a statement there was more to the story, but did not elaborate.
The news of the NSA’s location-data test emerged at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on agency surveillance as the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, offered a new rationale for the agency’s collection of U.S. calling records in bulk.
Under the supervision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the NSA since 2007 has built a database of so-called telephony metadata that includes calls made by nearly every American. The data include records of calls for each telephone number, but not names, addresses or the contents of any communication, officials have said.
Intelligence officials have publicly identified only a single terrorism financing case in the U.S. that was cracked because of that program, and a second case in which it played a central role.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy, D-Vt., pressed Clapper and Alexander on that point. “We have heard over and over again the assertion that 54 terrorist plots were thwarted,” he said. “That’s plainly wrong.”
Alexander acknowledged there were only two cases.
Clapper added that determining “plots foiled” was not the only way to measure the usefulness of the domestic phone database. The records also allow analysts to rule out domestic conspiracies, he said. “I would call it the ‘peace-of-mind’ metric,” he said.