NSA Head Admits Testing U.S. Cellphone Tracking

Intelligence chiefs said recent media reports are wrong about their efforts to gather information about the social networks of Americans. They told a Senate panel such efforts are focused on foreigners. But NSA chief Keith Alexander admitted the agency has collected cellphone location information, as part of a short-lived test program years ago.

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Top U.S. intelligence officials are now warning about the threat to security posed by the partial federal shutdown. It is now idling most of the civilian workforce in the intelligence community. This follows an earlier warning to Congress about limiting their ability to monitor phone and data traffic.

That plea began during a Senate hearing about possible changes to intelligence laws, as NPR's Larry Abramson reports.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: At a hearing last week, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee voiced strong support for the monitoring efforts of the National Security Agency. But lawmakers on the Judiciary Committee are much more skeptical. Chairman Pat Leahy of Vermont made it clear he wants to shut down a program that collects most American phone records.

SENATOR PATRICK LEAHY: Government has not made its case that bulk collection of domestic phone records is an effective counterterrorism tool, especially in light of the intrusion on American privacy.

ABRAMSON: Intelligence leaders made a case they have made before, that the program is legal and receives plenty of oversight, but their job keeps getting tougher, because leaks from Edward Snowden keep uncovering new allegations. Most recently, The New York Times said the National Security Agency was creating graphs of the social connections between American citizens.

NSA director Keith Alexander.

KEITH ALEXANDER: Those reports are inaccurate and wrong.

ABRAMSON: Alexander said the agency does use online information and social networks to help create maps of social connections, but only of foreigners with a connection to terrorism.

ALEXANDER: But what they jumped to is: Well, that must be on U.S. persons. That part is wrong. We don't do that. And the fact that people assume that we're out there mapping the social networks of U.S. persons is absolutely wrong.

ABRAMSON: General Alexander said the agency did get permission, in 2009, to investigate links to terrorism that include Americans as part of the chain. He said this new rule...

ALEXANDER: Allows NSA to not just stop when we are tracking a terrorist if we hit a U.S. number, which is what we used to have to do.

ABRAMSON: But once again, just as he was trying to clear up one report, Alexander found himself faced with a new charge: That the agency has collected cellphone location information on Americans. The NSA director clearly wanted to tread carefully on this sensitive issue. He pulled out a written statement and read it.

ALEXANDER: (Reading) In 2010 and 2011, NSA received samples in order to test the ability of its systems to handle the data format. But that data was not used for any other purposes and was never available for intelligence analysis purposes.

ABRAMSON: Alexander would not rule out the possibility that NSA might need location information in the future. But he said he would go to Congress and the courts to get permission first. This has been a recurring theme at recent hearings. Alexander has denied NSA collects location information under current programs. It's not clear whether his statement at this hearing will put an end to concerns that intelligence analysts might see cell location as a rich trove of information.

Throughout the hearing, Alexander and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warned of the impact the government shutdown is already having on the intelligence community. Clapper said 70 percent of his civilian workers have been furloughed. He was asked whether the country is safe.

JAMES CLAPPER: I don't feel that I can make such a guarantee to the American people. And it will be much more difficult to make such a guarantee as each day of this shutdown goes by.

ABRAMSON: Clapper said he and his lawyers are trying to figure out exactly which workers can legally come into the office to deal with any imminent threats.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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