US National Security Agency

NSA declines to confirm it tracks movements via cell phone signals

US spy agency chief pressed about the use it makes of Americans' mobile phone signals, as senators push rival bills to curb its activities

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 September, 2013, 3:28am

The top US intelligence official has sidestepped questions from a senator about whether the National Security Agency has used Americans' mobile phone signals to collect information on their whereabouts that would allow tracking of the movements of individual callers.

Asked twice by Senator Ron Wyden if the NSA had ever collected or made plans to collect such data, NSA chief General Keith Alexander answered both times by reading from a letter provided to senators who had asked the same question last summer. He also cited a classified version of the letter that was sent to senators and said, "What I don't want to do ... is put out in an unclassified forum anything that's classified."

Wyden promised to keep asking. "I believe this is something the American people have a right to know," he said.

The testy exchange at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing illustrates the wider tension that has grown between the public and the US intelligence community, following disclosures by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden about the collection of telephone and email records of millions of Americans.

The panel's bipartisan leadership used the hearing to promote their version of legislation to change the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act. The lawmakers seek to trim NSA's authority to access and analyse US phone records and provide new protections for Americans' privacy. They also want to broaden the government's spying powers to allow monitoring of terror suspects who travel to the US after being tracked overseas by the NSA.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the committee, said the legislation would "strictly limit access to the ... phone metadata records, expressly prohibit the collection of the content of phone calls" and limit the amount of time such US phone call data could be kept. Such records show the date and length of calls, and the numbers dialled.

But Feinstein's proposed legislation would not stop the bulk collection of telephone and e-mail records. A separate bipartisan group of four senators, including Wyden, unveiled legislation earlier this week to end those bulk collections.

Feinstein and the committee's top Republican, Senator Saxby Chambliss defended US intelligence efforts, as did Alexander and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper - insisting that while they collect US bulk records, they do not listen in on individual Americans' phone calls or read their e-mails without a court order.

Alexander and Clapper spoke of wanting to co-operate with suggested changes in order to win back the public's trust.

Clapper told the committee he was willing to consider limiting both how US telephone and e-mail data collected by NSA is used, and the amount of time it is stored. He said he's also open to other changes, such as appointing an independent official to oppose the government in hearings before the secret federal court that considers all government surveillance requests.

But Alexander's exchanges with Wyden and Senator Mark Udall showed the tension between the intelligence community and a bipartisan group of lawmakers who think NSA's powers need to be drastically cut.

"Is it the goal of the NSA to collect the phone records of all Americans?" Udall asked.

"Yes, I believe it is in the nation's best interest to put all the phone records into a lockbox that we could search when the nation needs to do it," Alexander replied.