The 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.”