Members of protest group CodePink, including founder Medea Benjamin, in the oversized glasses, attended Wednesday’s hearing.

Evan Vucci • Associated Press,

National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander paused while testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013, before the Senate Judiciary Committee oversight hearing on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. U.S. intelligence officials say the government shutdown is seriously damaging the intelligence communityís ability to guard against threats.

Evan Vucci • Associated Press,

NSA chief acknowledges agency tested U.S. cellphone tracking

  • Associated Press
  • October 2, 2013 - 9:05 PM


– National Security Agency (NSA) 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 use around the world, exposed in June by former NSA analyst Edward Snowden. But neither spy chief discussed proposed reforms. They were questioned instead 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 looking for foreign terror connections, and detailed 12 previously revealed cases of abuse by NSA employees who used the network for unsanctioned missions such as spying on a spouse. He said all employees were caught and most were disciplined.

Alexander and Clapper also told lawmakers that the government shutdown that began Tuesday over a budget impasse is seriously damaging the intelligence community’s ability to guard against threats. They said they’re keeping counterterrorism staff at work as well as those providing intelligence to troops in Afghanistan, but that some 70 percent of the civilian workforce has been furloughed.

Congress is mulling changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) 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 said that if the NSA thought it needed to track someone that way, it would go back to the FISA Court — the secret court that authorizes its spying missions — for approval. He added that his agency reported the tests to both House and Senate intelligence committees, and that the data were never used for intelligence analysis.

Only last week, Alexander declined to answer questions from Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., about whether his agency had ever collected or planned to collect such “cell-site” data, but the general said the NSA released the information in letters to the House and Senate Intelligence committees before Wednesday’s Judiciary Committee meeting.

Alexander acknowledged his agency collects data from social networks and other commercial databases to hunt foreign terror suspects but is not using the information to build files on Americans.

He also said that not all social network searches are authorized by the FISA Court, but he added the agency’s searches are proper and audited internally.

Alexander called a recent New York Times report on the searches “wrong.” The Times said the NSA was exploiting huge collections of personal data to create sophisticated graphs of some Americans’ social connections. The Times said the private data included Facebook posts and banking, flight, GPS location and voting records.

Alexander said collecting such private metadata is “the most important way” to track a potential terrorist. He also said Americans are only directly targeted when they are under investigation for possible terror ties or they are the targets of such activities. He added that suspected terrorists in the United States could also be targeted under those private data searches.


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