WASHINGTON -- The staff director of the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a statement late Wednesday denying that the National Security Agency gathers information on where Americans are when they use their cell phones hours after the committee’s chair, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, appeared to confirm that it did.
“The NSA does not collect locational information on Americans or non-Americans inside the United States without a court order. No other agency in the Intelligence Community does so either," David Grannis said in an email to McClatchy.
Grannis’s statement seemed to go beyond what NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander has been willing to say in public in response to questions about the NSA’s collection of such information. On Wednesday, Alexander read a statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee in which he said the NSA did not collect locational data “under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act,” a reference to a controversial program that requires cellphone companies to report daily to the NSA information about the cellphone usage of million of Americans, including the numbers they call and the length of time they talk.
Grannis, however, said the denial included all intelligence agencies.
Grannis said that Feinstein, D-Calif., had been speaking “extemporaneously” when she mistakenly said that “location” was among the information NSA collected.
“I’ve listened to this program being described as a surveillance program. It is not,” Feinstein said during a hearing into the NSA programs by the Senate Judiciary Committee, of which she is also a member. “There is no content collected by the NSA. There are bits of data – location, telephone numbers – that can be queried when there is reasonable and articulable suspicion.”
Grannis confirmed that the quote was correct. But he said the comment was in error and that Feinstein’s staff had attempted to clarify it with a note on a transcript they posted on Feinstein’s Senate website. Feinstein’s staff, however, did not respond to requests for clarification until after a McClatchy story highlighting the comment was published.
No comment was issued in Feinstein’s name regarding the statement.
Feinstein has been an ardent defender of the NSA’s data collection programs since they were first revealed in June by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Whether the United States is collecting so-called location data has become a contentious issue in the debate over the NSA’s programs. Some privacy advocates claim such information is far more useful to tracking an individual’s activities than listening in on conversations, because the phone’s location is recorded even when it is not in use.
Only last week, locational data was the topic of a tense exchange between NSA director Keith Alexander and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., during an Intelligence Committee hearing that Feinstein chaired.
Alexander was careful to restrict his answer to programs authorized under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act. When Wyden, a critic of the NSA, persisted, Alexander read a prepared statement in which he declined to answer in open session.
“Respectfully, I’m asking, has the NSA ever collected or ever made any plans to collect Americans’ cell-site information. That was the question and we, respectfully, General, have still not gotten an answer to it,” Wyden said. “Could you give me an answer to that?”