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NSA chief admits govt collected cellphone location data

rtx13z4q_siThe director of the National Security Agency admitted this week that the NSA tested a program that collected cellphone location data from American citizens starting in 2010, but suspended it shortly after.

Gen. Keith Alexander, the head of both the NSA and the United  States Cyber Command, told lawmakers in Washington early  Wednesday that the secretive pilot program was taken offline in  2011, but that the intelligence community may someday in the  future make plans to routinely collect location data about US  citizens.

Alexander briefly discussed the program during a Senate hearing  on the Hill early Wednesday that focused on the data provided to  the government through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act,  or FISA, including programs that were exposed earlier this year  by unauthorized disclosures attributed to  contractor-turned-leaker Edward Snowden.

Only days earlier, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) asked Alexander  during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing if the NSA was  collecting location data on American citizens.

I’m asking, has the NSA ever collected, or ever made any  plans to collect, American cell site information?”   Wyden asked last Thursday.

The NSA, Alexander responded at the time, “is not receiving  cell-site location data and has no current plans to do so.”

During this Wednesday’s hearing, Alexander explained that,   “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 purpose and was never  available for intelligence analysis purposes.”

According to a written copy of the statement obtained by The New  York Times before Wednesday’s hearing, Alexander said that  location information is not being collected by the NSA under  Section 215 of the Patriot Act. Alexander did not discuss if any  other laws are being implemented to otherwise allow for the  collection and analysis of location data.

Moments after Alexander revealed the pilot program before the  Senate committee, he said that the NSA may someday want to seek  approval from Washington to revive that initiative as part of a  fully functioning intelligence gathering operation.

I would just say that this may be something that is a future  requirement for the country, but it is not right now,”   Alexander said.

Alexander’s statement regarding the new defunct program was  expected, and obtained by The New York Times moments before  Wednesday’s hearing was underway. Times reporter Charlie Savage  wrote that morning that information about the pilot project was  only recently declassified by Director of National Intelligence  James Clapper, and that the draft answer obtained by the paper  and later read aloud by Alexander was prepared in case he was  asked about the topic.

Still unsatisfied by the intelligence community’s explanation  about the collection of cellphone location data, Sen. Wyden  supplied the Times with a response suggesting that the truth  behind the NSA’s activities isn’t being fully acknowledged by the  intelligence community.

After years of stonewalling on whether the government has  ever tracked or planned to track the location of law-abiding  Americans through their cellphones, once again, the intelligence  leadership has decided to leave most of the real story secret —   even when the truth would not compromise national security,”   Wyden said.

In March, Wyden asked Clapper to say if the NSA was collecting  personal information on millions of Americans. The intelligence  director dismissed that allegation, then later apologized to the Senate for offering a “clearly  erroneous” response.

Time and time again, the American people were told one thing  about domestic surveillance in public forums, while government  agencies did something else in private,” Wyden told the  Senate Intelligence Committee panel of witnesses last week, which  included Alexander, Clapper, and Deputy Attorney General James  Cole.

During last week’s meeting, Wyden said he “will continue to  explore that because I believe this is something the American  people have a right to know whether the NSA has ever collected or  made plans to collect cell-site information.”


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