Leading members of the United States intelligence community continued to defend the government's vast surveillance programs in Washington on Thursday and suggested that those agency's capabilities exceed what's been previously reported.
During a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill Thursday afternoon, lawmakers asked representatives from the National Security Agency, Department of Justice and Office of the Director of National Intelligence to provide more information about the surveillance programs operated by the government and exposed through a series of unauthorized disclosures attributed to former contractor Edward Snowden earlier this year.
The hearing, the first open meeting of the committee since March, centered on the NSA's authorities under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and PATRIOT Act that allow the government to gather basic records pertaining to the communications of American citizens.
Documents leaked by Snowden since June of this year have revealed that the government uses those authorities to collect intel at a much greater degree then previously reported. Upon questioning from the panel on Thursday, it was suggested that the NSA gathers even more information than assumed.
Gen. Keith Alexander, the head of the NSA and US Cyber Command, told lawmakers that he didn't think there was any “upper limit” with regards to how many telephone records the government wants to collect.
When asked by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) if the agency's goal was to collect the phone records of all Americans, Alexander said, “I believe that it is in the nation's best interest to put all the phone records into a lockbox.”
Prior to asking his question, Wyden said he gave the panel advance notice of what he'd ask.
A critic of the NSA's programs since even before Snowden began leaking documents, Wyden told the witnesses, “ the leadership of your agencies built an intelligence collection system that repeatedly deceived the America people.”
“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 said.
Alexander was flanked by Deputy Attorney General James Cole and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
Wyden infamously showed down with Clapper earlier this year when he asked the lawmaker if the intelligence community collects information on millions of Americans. Clapper responded “not wittingly,” then later apologized to Committe Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-California) for his “clearly erroneous” remark after Snowden's leaks suggested otherwise only weeks later.
"So that he would be prepared to answer, I sent the question to Director Clapper’s office a day in advance. After the hearing was over, my staff and I gave his office a chance to amend his answer," Wyden told the Washington Post after the March meeting. "Now public hearings are needed to address the recent disclosures, and the American people have the right to expect straight answers from the intelligence leadership to the questions asked by their representatives.”
On Thursday, Alexander phrased questioning directed at Gen. Alexander in an attempt to determine if the NSA collected information from cell phone towers that could be used to locate customers. Alexander decline to provide a straight answer during an unclassified hearing.
“If you're responding to my question by not answering it because you think thats a classified matter, that is certainly your right,” said Wyden. “ We will continue to explore that because I believe that is something the American people deserve to know.”