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NSA Head Denies 'Spying,' But Can't Rule Out Collecting Congressional Phone Data

The National Security Agency's top official said the agency does not "spy" on members of Congress is a letter responding to questions posed by Sen. Bernie Sanders earlier this month, but didn't rule out the possibility that members of Congress' metadata exists in the agency's vast amounts of data.

Gen. Keith Alexander, head of U.S. Army Cyber Command and the NSA's operations, said in a letter to Sanders [PDF] that "Nothing NSA does can fairly be characterized as 'spying on Members of Congress or other American elected officials.'"

At the same time, Alexander said the "extraordinary controls" on the agency's operations prevent it from finding out if Congressional phone records are among those it collects.

Among those protections is the condition that NSA can query the metadata only based on phone numbers reasonably suspected to be associated with specific foreign terrorist groups. For that reason, NSA cannot lawfully search to determine if any records NSA has received under the program have included metadata of the phone calls of any member of Congress, other American elected officials, or any other American without that predicate.

Alexander also points to the final report of a Presidential review group of NSA activities, which said it found "no evidence of illegality or other abuse of authority for the purpose of targeting domestic political activity."

In the letter, Alexander defends the agency's widespread collection of telephone metadata - a practice by which the NSA gathers information about phone calls such as time, duration and the involved phone numbers without recording or listening to the actual conversation.

"We firmly believe, consistent with the recent holdings of the United States District Courts for the Southern District of New York and Southern District of California, as well as findings of fifteen judges on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on thirty-six separate occasions over the past 7 years, that the telephony metadata program is lawful," Alexander wrote.

Sanders' January 3 letter to Alexander asked the general: “Has the NSA spied, or is the NSA currently spying, on members of Congress or other American elected officials?”

In a release notifying the press about the response, Sanders emphasized that Alexander "did not rule out collecting intelligence on members of Congress." In a statement to to VPR after Sanders' Jan. 3 letter, NSA spokeswoman Marci Green Miller said that the NSA’s work “include[s] procedures that protect the privacy of U.S. persons,” and that “members of Congress have the same privacy protections as all U.S. persons.”

Sanders' comments showed a discomfort with domestic political spying based in the memories of the Watergate scandal.

“The NSA is collecting enormous amounts of information. They know about the phone calls made by every person in this country, where they’re calling, who they’re calling and how long they’re on the phone. Let us not forget that a mere 40 years ago we had a president of the United States who completely disregarded the law in an effort to destroy his political opponents. In my view, the information collected by the NSA has the potential to give an unscrupulous administration enormous power over elected officials,” Sanders said in the statement.

Taylor was VPR's digital reporter from 2013 until 2017. After growing up in Vermont, he graduated with at BA in Journalism from Northeastern University in 2013.
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