…[NSA Director Keith] Alexander acknowledged that the NSA is interested in compiling the largest national database possible, and that there is no limit to the number of records that can be gathered. The storehouse holds billions of records, former officials have told The Washington Post.
“Is it the goal of the NSA to collect the phone records of all Americans?” Udall asked.
“I believe it is in the nation’s best interests to put all the phone records into a lockbox that we could search when the nation needs to do it, yes,” Alexander said.
The government has claimed the authority to gather the data under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, also known as the “business records” provision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The FISA court in 2006 agreed that the government could use that statute to order phone companies to hand over “all call detail records” daily to the NSA.
Asked by Udall if that statute gave NSA the authority to collect other data — such as utility bills — Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole offered a qualified answer. “It’s given them the authority to collect other bulk records if they can show that it is necessary to find something relevant to a foreign intelligence investigation of particular types. . . . It’s not just all bulk records. But it’s also not no business records. It’s all dependent on the purpose.”
[Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon)], Udall and other lawmakers have introduced reform legislation that would, among other things, end the phone records collection, while allowing for a more limited program.
On Thursday, Wyden accused U.S. officials of not being more forthcoming about intelligence-collection programs.
“The leadership of your agencies built an intelligence-collection system that repeatedly deceived the American people,” he said. “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 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.”