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Unusual Senate hearing leads to testy questions about NSA cellphone spying

US intelligence officials sought to ally fears about NSA activities at a Senate hearing Thursday. But one senator came away wanting more answers about cellphone surveillance.

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As part of an apparent public relations campaign, Clapper has ordered the release of a series of documents about the surveillance programs to try to shore up public support.

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Alexander repeated Clapper’s claim about inaccurate press accounts. He said news accounts had suggested there had been 2,776 privacy violations under the secret surveillance system. In fact, he said, 75 percent of those cited instances of a violation involved the intelligence agency breaking off surveillance because the target had traveled to the US.

Under rule of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the NSA must confine its collection efforts to persons outside the US. Once a target enters the US, the surveillance is handed over to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Alexander said there had been only 12 substantiated cases of willful violations at the NSA during the past decade. He said several of the cases were referred to the Justice Department for possible prosecution, and that others were disciplined within the agency.

The NSA director told the senators that the agency’s programs had disrupted 54 terror-related events, including 25 in Europe, 11 in Asia, five in Africa, and 13 in the US.

“This was no accident. This was not coincidence,” he said. “These are the direct results of a dedicated workforce, appropriate policy, and well-sculpted authorities created in the wake of 9/11 to make sure 9/11 never happens again.”

The general said that had the NSA program been operative in the spring and summer of 2001, US intelligence would have likely identified the 9/11 terror plot before it was carried out. “That’s my personal opinion,” he said.

Wyden praised Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D) of California for holding an open hearing to facilitate public debate over the sensitive subject.

But he was critical of Clapper and Alexander for what he said was failure to deal truthfully with the American public. “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.”

“Now these secret interpretations of the law and violations of the constitutional rights of Americans has become public,” Wyden said. “There’s been loss of trust in our intelligence apparatus here at home and with friendly foreign allies.”

Wyden added: “This could have been avoided if the intelligence leadership had been straight with the American people and not acted like the deceptions that were practiced for years could last forever.”

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