NSA Chief Acknowledges Cell Phone Tracking Tests; Warns Senate about Shutdown Effects

WASHINGTON – National Security Agency (NSA) Chief Gen. Keith Alexander told lawmakers last week his agency once conducted tests to assess whether its systems could handle tracking Americans’ cell phone locations and warned them of the government shutdown’s impact on national security.

Alexander and James Clapper, director of National Intelligence (DNI), testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on proposed reforms to the NSA’s surveillance of phone and Internet usage around the world, exposed by former NSA analyst Edward Snowden.

Americans learned for the first time this summer that Section 215 of the Patriot Act has for years been secretly interpreted to authorize the collection of Americans' phone records. The American public also learned more about the government's collection of Internet content data using Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which covers Internet communications. Section 702 allows the attorney general and director of national intelligence, for a period of up to one year, to engage “in the targeting of persons reasonably believed to be located outside the United States to acquire foreign intelligence information."

“When you have all these revelations, it's no surprise the intelligence community faces a trust deficit. And after years of raising concerns about the scope of FISA authorities… I'm glad that many members of Congress in both parties are now interested in taking a close look at these programs and both the government's legal and policy justifications for them,” said the committee’s chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).

Congress is considering changes to FISA, and other surveillance authorities, that some believe grant the NSA too much freedom in gathering U.S. data as part of spying on targets abroad.

Leahy is urging a complete review by the intelligence community’s inspector general of the government’s use of Section 215 and Section 702. The senator is working on a comprehensive legislative solution with Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), the chairman of the House Crime and Terrorism Subcommittee, that aims to address the two sections and a range of surveillance authorities that raise similar concerns.

But the panel did not discuss any proposed reforms in length. Instead, the hearing focused on potential abuses that have become known since the Snowden scandal, and the impact of the government shutdown on U.S. intelligence agencies.

Clapper warned the dangers and threats to the nation become “cumulative,” as “the jeopardy increases” each day the government shutdown goes by.

“This affects our global capability to support the military, to support diplomacy, and to support our policymakers. And the danger here, of course, that this will accumulate over time – the damage will be insidious,” he said.

Responding to the inquiries from lawmakers about his policy for furloughs, Clapper said the intelligence community based its decision on a law that characterizes intelligence staff as essential if they are “necessary to protect against imminent threat to life or property.”

He added that the intelligence agencies furloughed roughly 70 percent of personnel, which he thinks will change if the shutdown continues.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) wondered whether Clapper was overstating his claims. He asked how bad things could be if that number of employees could be deemed as “nonessential” under the furlough guidelines.

“You either need better lawyers,” Grassley said, referring to the legal advisers who determined that 70 percent of employees were not essential, “or need to make changes in your workforce.”