The Complex

Questions the NSA Chief Should Be Forced to Answer

National Security Agency chief Gen. Keith Alexander is set to testify before the House intelligence committee Tuesday on the NSA's vast operations to collect the phone and Internet records of millions of people.

Nothing overtly illegal has surfaced - at least not yet -- in the nearly two weeks since NSA's data-collection efforts were leaked to The Guardian and The Washington Post. But there are still all sorts of question marks surrounding the activities that America's digital spies are undertaking on U.S. soil. Here are seven questions we'd like the Representatives to ask tomorrow. 

  • How many times has NSA been granted permission to collect phone and Internet metadata on the entire customer base of American companies? (Or as ACLU lawyer Michelle Richardson put it in an email to Killer Apps: "How the heck did a federal judge agree that literally every phone call in America is ‘relevant' to an investigation? Is there a court opinion discussing this?")
  • The Intelligence Community collects millions of phone records under section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allows the government to ask a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act or FISA court to order a business to hand over customer records to federal investigators. What other bulk information does the Intelligence Community collect under section 215? Last week, Sen. Dick Durban revealed that there's been a huge spike in the amount of times U.S. government has requested authority under Section 215 of the Patriot Act to obtain phone records and possibly medical records, tax records, Internet search records and credit card records -- some 212 times last year compared to the 21 such instances in 2009. Furthermore, is it true that you only consider intelligence as being "acquired" if a querey is made about the details of metadata that 215 programs gather ? 
  • What electronic data are collected by intelligence agencies without a warrant on U.S. soil? Does the NSA have "direct access" to tech company servers under the PRISM program, as an official presentation for the system suggested? If so, describe in detail what you mean by "direct access."
  • You said that "dozens" of potential terrorist attacks against the U.S. and its allies have been thwarted by these programs. But the government has only specifically discussed one plot - and that case seemed to be cracked by old-fashioned police work. Which specific terrorist plots on U.S. soil have been foiled by Section 702 (the section of the Patriot Act that allows the government to search content of foreign electronic communications) programs like PRISM? How many have been foiled by the Section 215 surveillance that looks at business records? 
  • Even the government acknowledges that with broad electronic intelligence programs, information on U.S. citizens may be "incidentally" or accidentally collected. How many American's have had the contents of their electronic communications accidentally scooped up?
  • The government is required to minimize information collected about American citizens who are not being investigated for a connection to terrorism. What is done, specifically, with Americans' information that is accidentally collected? What are the minimization procedures and how quickly are they undertaken? 
  • Edward Snowden has claimed that as a fairly low-level contract-employee to NSA he could he could tap into virtually any American's phone call or e-mails. True or false? Who is given access to the electronic intelligence collected under these programs?

While we're at it, we'd like to ask the tech companies like Apple, how on Earth are their legal departments able to quickly analyze through the thousands of government requests to view customer data and determine how to respond? Maybe these tech company CEOs will be the next witnesses as Congress tries to untangle this vast NSA surveillance web.


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