“This may be something that is a future requirement for the country but it is not right now because when we identify a number, we give it to the FBI,” Alexander said. “When they get their probable cause, they can get the locational data.”
He said if the NSA thought it needed to track someone that way, it would go back to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court — the secret court that authorizes its spying missions — for approval. He added that his agency reported the tests to both House and Senate intelligence committees, and that the data was never used for intelligence analysis.
Only last week, Alexander refused to answer questions from Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., about whether his agency had ever collected or planned to collect such “cell-site” data, as it is called, saying it was classified, but the general said the NSA released the information in letters to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees ahead of the Judiciary Committee meeting Wednesday.
Wyden was not satisfied with Alexander’s answer.
“After years of stonewalling on whether the government has ever tracked or planned to track the location of law abiding Americans through their cell phones, once again, the intelligence leadership has decided to leave most of the real story secret — even when the truth would not compromise national security,” he said.
Alexander acknowledged his agency collects data from social networks and other commercial databases to hunt foreign terror suspects but is not using the information to build private files on Americans. He said the operations are only used in pursuing foreign agents and sweeping up information on Americans if they are connected to those suspects by phone calls or other data.
Alexander said that not all social network searches are authorized by the secret FISA court, but he added the agency’s searches are proper and audited internally. The authority flows from a presidential executive order on national security dating back to the Reagan administration in 1981, he said, adding: “It allows us to understand what the foreign nexus is.”