Officials: NSA Doesn't Collect Cellphone-Location Records
By SIOBHAN GORMAN and JULIAN E. BARNES
WASHINGTON-The National Security Agency sweeps up data on millions of cellphones and Internet communications under secret court orders. But as it mounts a rigorous defense of its surveillance, the agency has disclosed new details that portray its efforts as tightly controlled and limited in scope, while successful in thwarting potential plots.
On Sunday, officials said that though the NSA is authorized to collect "geolocational" information that can pinpoint the location of callers, it chooses not to.
A secret court order that was made public earlier this month directed Verizon Communications Inc. VZ -0.70% to turn over to the NSA "comprehensive communications routing information." Under this authority, NSA would have the ability to collect data on locations of calls placed or received, a U.S.
official said Sunday.
Other major phone companies including AT&T Inc. T -0.42% and Sprint Nextel Corp. S -1.37% also operate under similar orders, former officials say.
As part of this program, however, the NSA chooses not to collect such data as the nearest cellphone tower used to place or receive a mobile call, U.S.
officials said. In a statement released this weekend, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said the NSA program doesn't collect "any cell phone locational information."
Such information has been found to be of value to criminal investigators, who can use it to link suspects with crime scenes. However, the U.S.
official said the data doesn't provide sufficient intelligence value to justify the resources that would be required to use it.
In the weekend statement, which was provided to Congress and released by the Senate Intelligence Committee, officials described other aspects of the surveillance programs in narrow terms.
In 2012, for example, fewer than 300 phone records of Americans were reviewed, and that review was confined to information that was "associated with specific foreign terrorist organizations," the statement said.
Queries to the database are documented and audited, said the statement. It added that only a "small number" of trained officials can access the information. The statement said the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court reviews the program every 90 days, and all data is destroyed after five years.
Nonetheless, revelations resulting from leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who took refuge in Hong Kong, pointed to the existence of a much broader surveillance apparatus than had been understood, prompting civil-liberties advocates to express concern over constitutional rights and privacy.
"We need to determine as a country where to draw the line between our national security and privacy concerns," Sen. Mark Udall (D., Colo.) said by email. "We also need to have an honest discussion about whether this program is actually doing what it is supposed to do-protect us from terrorists.
Advocates of the surveillance programs at issue-one that collects phone data from millions of Americans and another that collects communications by foreign targets from Internet companies-said they are much narrower than intelligence officials might prefer.
Retired Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, a former head of the NSA and director of the Central Intelligence Agency under President George W. Bush, said that in a democracy, intelligence services have to be "a little less effective"
in order to be "a little bit more transparent" to the American people.
Some of the leaks confirm surveillance that many Americans assume is continuing. Sunday, the Guardian newspaper, citing a leaked NSA report from Mr. Snowden, said the agency intercepted communications from Russian officials in London in 2009 when then-President Dmitry Medvedev was at a Group of 20 summit. The report said the NSA believed the intercept showed "a change in the way Russian leadership signals have been normally transmitted."
Also Sunday, current and former U.S. officials continued to voice concern over the possibility of Chinese meddling in the leaks case.
Jeremy Bash, former chief of staff at the CIA and Pentagon under President Barack Obama, said the intelligence community was worried that the Chinese could exploit unreleased information Mr. Snowden has. Mr. Bash said on ABC News that every day Mr. Snowden remains in Hong Kong "erodes his claim that he's a whistleblower."
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