Alexander called a recent New York Times report on the searches “inaccurate and wrong.” The Times said the NSA was exploiting huge collections of personal data to create sophisticated graphs of some Americans’ social connections. The Times said the private data included Facebook posts and banking, flight, GPS location and voting records.
Alexander denied the NSA was building “dossiers,” or personal files on Americans, even though the Times story never specifically suggested that was being done.
He said collecting such private metadata is “the most important way” to track a potential terrorist once they have been identified. He also said Americans are only directly targeted by such searches when they are under investigation for possible terror ties or they are the targets of terror activities. He added that suspected terrorists operating inside the U.S. could also be targeted under those private data searches.
As for the incidents when NSA analysts did abuse their spying powers, Alexander told senators none of them involved the programs that collect American telephone records or email data.
“Nine of those were abroad,” he said. “Three were (in the U.S.) but involved persons abroad on two of those. And one was on a spouse or girlfriend.”
The NSA’s inspector general detailed the violation in a letter to Congress that was released last week. Several cases clearly showed government officials using the surveillance system to probe for information about spouses or partners. In one case, an internal investigation found that the official had made internal surveillance queries on the phones of nine foreign women, including his girlfriend, without authorization and had at times listened in on some phone conversations. The same official also collected data on a U.S. person’s phone.
Alexander said all had been disciplined, and had retired, resigned or been reprimanded, except for one where there wasn’t enough evidence to prove wrongdoing.