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

Alexander echoed Clapper’s remarks and lamented putting on furlough the NSA’s “amazing workforce.”

“We have over 960 PhDs, over 4,000 computer scientists, over 1,000 mathematicians,” he said, adding, “our nation needs people like this, and the way we treat them is to tell them, 'You need to go home, because we can't afford to pay you.’”

Alexander denied a recent New York Times report that said the NSA is analyzing social networks, tax records, voter registration records, and other personal information to create sophisticated profiles of some Americans.

The report also detailed 12 previously revealed cases of abuse by NSA employees who used the network for unsanctioned missions like spying on love interests.

He said all employees involved in these violations faced disciplinary actions.

On Wednesday, the Justice Department responded to petitions from major U.S. Internet companies to publish the number of national security data requests. The Justice Department said in a 33-page brief that the government agreed to publish an annual report, including a total number of requests under FISA. Nevertheless, this data will not be broken down on a company basis because it could provide “adversaries with a roadmap to the existence or extent of government surveillance.”

Clapper reiterated these concerns at the hearing. He said the U.S. government could publish the number of total surveillance requests it makes annually to companies, but more detailed information on a company-by-company basis would give “adversaries and terrorists, the prerogative of shopping around for providers that aren't covered.”

He also acknowledged that the NSA had experimented with so-called locational data in 2010 to 2011, saying the data was never used for intelligence analysis purposes. Privacy advocates argue such information is far more useful to tracking an individual’s activities than listening in on conversations, because the phone’s location is recorded even when it is not in use.

The previous week, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) grilled Alexander about locational data during an Intelligence Committee hearing. When Wyden insisted on getting an answer, Alexander read a prepared statement in which he declined to respond to the senator’s question in open session.

At the latest hearing, Alexander again read a prepared statement denying the NSA was collecting locational data under the Patriot Act, but acknowledged that “NSA received samples in order to test the ability of its systems to handle the data format.”

Revelations by Snowden have focused attention primarily on Sections 215 and 702, but other intelligence collection programs outside of FISA function under the guidelines of Executive Order 12333, which according to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) authorizes the collection of intelligence information outside of FISA.

“Although there has been substantial attention paid to FISA, other intelligence collection programs outside of FISA function under the guidelines of Executive Order 12333, which do not mandate the same protections for U.S. person privacy and oversight as does FISA,” Feinstein said last month during the Intelligence Committee hearing.

Alexander made clear last week that the NSA separates carefully programs authorized under Sections 215 of the Patriot Act and 702 of FISA, and those authorized under Executive Order 12333.

He said the 12 incidents of abuse by NSA employees occurred under Executive Order 12333 and not under 215 or 702.