NSA Head Grilled on Capitol Hill as Senators Hint at More Revelations

NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander at a previous hearing.

NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander at a previous hearing.

Polite sparks flew during a U.S. Senate committee hearing Wednesday, as two of the nation's top spies were questioned about the National Security Agency's surveillance of U.S. residents.

"The leadership of your agencies built an intelligence-collection system that repeatedly deceived the American people," Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), told NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper during a hearing called by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

"This loss of trust undermines America's ability to collect intelligence on real threats," Wyden added. "Your joint testimony blames the media [for public outrage at the NSA], but in fact, this could have been avoided if your agencies had been straight with the American people."

Wyden and fellow senators Mark Udall (D-Colo.), Rand Paul (R-Tenn.), and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), have submitted a bill that would greatly restrict the ability of the government to use Section 215 of the USA-PATRIOT Act to collect metadata — phone numbers, dates, times and call durations — about every telephone call placed in the United States.

MORE: FAQ: What's Going On With These Tapped Verizon Calls?

"Are there upper limits on the number of records you can collect?" Udall asked Alexander. "Is it your plan to collect records on all Americans? Are there other kinds of metadata you would like to collect?"

"There is no upper limit, no," replied Alexander. "I believe it's in the nation's best interests to place all the phone records in a lockbox, and oversight [of the NSA] will be key to that."

Regarding the collection of other kinds of metadata, Alexander referred to a previously disclosed Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court ruling that Section 215 could not be used to indiscriminately collect location records from cellular-network towers. (Such records can be used to physically track cellphones.)

Despite that court ruling, Wyden repeatedly asked Alexander the same question he and Udall have twice asked Clapper in public letters — whether the NSA "has ever collected, or has ever made any plans to collect, Americans' cell-site information in bulk."

"Under Section 215 of the Patriot Act..." Alexander began to reply.

"That's not the question I'm asking," Wyden interrupted. "Has the NSA ever collected, or ever made any plans to collect, Americans' cell-site information in bulk?"

MORE: 5 Things the NSA May Be Working On

As members of the intelligence committee briefed on national-security matters, Udall and Wyden probably know the answer, but cannot reveal it publicly.

"It's fair to assume that Wyden knows answers to the questions he's asking at public hearings," tweeted ACLU technology policy analyst Christopher Soghoian during the hearing. "He's asking them for our benefit."

The bill sponsored by Blumenthal, Rand, Udall and Wyden has no chance of getting anywhere, as evidenced by the gratitude and deference most members of the Senate Intelligence Committee showed Alexander and Clapper.

"We have a system which now works," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.). "You don't build a Roman Forum and then build another one next door because you made a mistake."

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Paul Wagenseil

Paul Wagenseil is a senior editor at Tom's Guide focused on security and privacy. He has also been a dishwasher, fry cook, long-haul driver, code monkey and video editor. He's been rooting around in the information-security space for more than 15 years at FoxNews.com, SecurityNewsDaily, TechNewsDaily and Tom's Guide, has presented talks at the ShmooCon, DerbyCon and BSides Las Vegas hacker conferences, shown up in random TV news spots and even moderated a panel discussion at the CEDIA home-technology conference. You can follow his rants on Twitter at @snd_wagenseil.

  • kenyee
    Does it really matter if Obama added the "oversight committee" he promised, but then made the committee proceedings secret and the members part of the problem instead of independent 3rd parties who might actually care about the Constitution? :-P

    That's like saying Obamacare will lower health costs for everyone, when you examine how it works and get 2+2 = 293. LOL :-)
  • f-14
    i would rather the entire system/facilities be physically destroyed by fire until only the ash remains of every single chip is all that is left.

    somebodys war time power are about to expire and hence the reason for getting american troops involved in syria..it's just terribly sad that america spent so much blood sweat and tears, time and money on over throwing the al queda taliban in afganistan only for obama to turn around and commit treason by giving the al queda syrian rebels weapons.

    makes me wonder what the point of having troops in afganistan and having a war on terror or trying to kill al queda members is and that we don't need the NDAA or patriot act any longer as our commander in chief has now allied america to al queda to the point his is helping them topple democratic governments and giving them weapons and possibly WMD's from when saddam was handing them out to any one who would fight the usa before the second iraq war.

    i only bring this up because it has already happened with fast and furious 1 and obama's executive orders for attorney general eric holder and the preemptive pardon of any one involved before the congressional hearing was set to question key players.
  • eodeo
    NSA should arrest itself already... Enjoy the irony...
  • maxiim
    The public demands a scapegoat, someone will get punished, but policy will most likely not change
  • ddpruitt
    It's funny how the same idiots that voted for the Patriot Act are now blaming the NSA for using it. We need to get a leash on congress before we can worry about the NSA.
  • HEXiT
    just a leash? im pretty sure it needs a cone and mussel 2.