The Director of the National Security Agency
is defending his organization's practice of collecting and storing for several
years the phone records of millions of Americans, but he told a panel of
lawmakers Tuesday that his agency may be willing to relinquish some control
over that massive database.
Gen. Keith Alexander told the House
Intelligence Committee that cellphone metadata such as phone numbers and call
duration has been used in foiling "a little over" ten "potential" terrorist
attacks on U.S soil. But the agency may look at asking phone companies to hold
onto their call records and only turn over details on specific accounts being
investigated by the government, he said.
Several lawmakers expressed concern at the
hearing that the NSA was collecting and storing too much information connected
to Americans, the overwhelming majority of whom could not possibly be connected
to terrorism. Leaving the metadata with the phone companies, rather than
copying it into NSA's databases, could alleviate some of those concerns at a
time when the electronic spy is facing renewed scrutiny of its secretive
"FBI, NSA are looking at the architectural
framework of how we actually do this program," Alexander said. "If you leave
[telephone metadata] at the service providers, you have a separate set of
issues in terms of how you actually get the information; how you have go back
and get that information [from them] how you follow it down and the legal
authority for how you compel them to keep that information for a certain period
Alexander cautioned that having the data in-hand at NSA allowed the agency to
respond quickly to potential threats, and that going to the phone companies
with repeated requests might take too long. "The concern is speed in a
crisis," he said
Alexander's statement came in response to a
question from Rep. Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California, who wanted to know
the prospects for changing a section of the Patriot Act such that
telecommunications companies would be required to retain the metadata, and only
hand it over to the government when they were specifically queried.
Alexander and other officials from the
intelligence community noted that while they have collected millions of
Americans' phone records, they are kept in a "lockbox," as committee chairman
Mike Rogers has described it. Only if NSA has "reasonable, articulable suspicion"
that a phone number from outside the United States is talking to someone in the
country, are NSA officials allowed to go into that lockbox and see which
domestic line the outside number is communicating with. That has only happened
about 300 times in the last year and only 22 NSA officials are allowed to look
at the information, according to the witnesses at the hearing, which included
senior officials from the Justice Department and the FBI.
The NSA is also implementing a buddy system
of sorts aimed at preventing unauthorized leaks by about 1,000 fairly low-level
IT systems administrators, the position held by Edward Snowden, who first
disclosed a court order connected to the NSA's massive collection of cellphone metadata.
"Working with the Director of National Intelligence,
what we're doing is working to come up with a two-person rule and oversight for
those [individuals] and ensure we have a way of blocking people from taking
information out of our system," Alexander told lawmakers. Basically, systems administrator
accessing sensitive information will need someone else there to make sure they
don't abscond with it.
Alexander also disclosed some more details
about what kind of information Snowden was able to access on NSA's internal
networks. The systems administrator did not have access to specific
intelligence that was collected by the NSA, but rather only to documents that "say
how we do our business," said Alexander.
to any data like the business records [call-tracking data] that we're talking
about, that's in an exceptionally controlled area," said Alexander. "You would
have to have specific certificates to get into that. I am not aware that...Snowden,
had any access to that."
However, Snowden did obtain a copy of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order
directing Verizon to hand over its metadata. That happened while Snowden was
attending a training session at the NSA's headquarters in Ft. Meade, Md.,
warrant was on a web server that he had access to as an analyst coming into the
Threat Operations Center," said Alexander. "It was in a special classified section that as he was
getting his training he went to."
Snowden found other documents such as the
slides on the now famous PRISM
Internet surveillance program on "open" internal forums that NSA employees
could access, Alexander said. "Those are forums that help people understand how
to operate NSA's collection authorities."
Alexander sought to defend the NSA's
collection of huge amounts of telephone and Internet data as key tools that the
government uses to disrupt or prevent terrorist attacks. All told, he said, NSA's
activities have potentially
disrupted more than 50 terrorist events around the globe, including at least ten
inside the United States.
of those 50 cases, collection pursuant to section 702 of FISA contributed to
the government's efforts, Alexander said. (That section governs the collection
and analysis of Internet data associated with the PRISM system.) And in 50-percent of those cases, the collection authority was "critical" to stopping an
attack, Alexander said.
Of the ten potential attacks in the United
States, telephone metadata was used in the "vast majority" of investigations,
he said. Administration officials have said the metadata is only used to
determine if a foreign terrorism suspect is making contact with individuals in
the United States. Alexander said that the number of cases in which metadata
played a role stopping a plot was probably more than ten, but he wanted to
confirm the estimate with other intelligence officials before nailing down a
Director Sean Joyce described four
specific terrorism cases in which officials used information collected through
PRISM or the metadata system:
An effort to blow up the New York
Stock Exchange, which Joyce told lawmakers was foiled by intelligence collected
pursuant to Section 702 on a Yemeni terrorist. This program also allowed the
FBI to lure potential terrorists to the Untied States so they could be arrested,
702 data was also used to capture
David Headley, the
Pakistani-American who helped scout locations for the 2008 Mumbai attacks and planned
to bomb a Danish newspaper that published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed.
In another case, authorities used
Section 215 data to reopen an investigation into a terrorist financier that was
halted soon after September 11, 2001.
Whether you call him a hero or a traitor, it looks like Edward Snowden's
disclosure of the NSA's gathering of phone records in bulk may in fact
lead to the practice ending.
Additional reporting by Shane Harris.