Back in October, Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said at a public hearing that the National Security Agency was collecting information on the location of American cell phones – a statement that the intelligence committee staff director later denied vehemently in phone conversations and emails with McClatchy. Feinstein, he said, had misspoken.
A Washington Post story published on Wednesday suggests, however, that it wasn't Feinstein who misspoke.
The Post story, citing documents leaked by former government contractor Edward Snowden, said that the NSA is indeed collecting so-called cell-site location data in its bulk metadata dragnets. The agency, the story reports, collects nearly 5 billion records a day, including those of Americans, and uses the information to track individuals and their interactions.
That sounds pretty much like what Feinstein said Oct. 2 in remarks at a public hearing to discuss what the NSA had been up to. Feinstein, one of the agency’s most consistent defenders, was trying to minimize the importance of what the NSA's massive metadata collection programs hauled in.
“There is no content collected by the NSA,” Feinstein said. “There are bits of data – location, telephone numbers that can be queried when there is reasonable, articulable suspicion."
Cell phone location is a particularly sensitive topic for privacy advocates, many of whom argue that knowing where one is because of one's cell phone is more invasive than even listening in on a conversation, since the location is registered even when the cellphone is not being used for conversation. So seeming confirmation from the intelligence committee chair that it was taking place was important news.
Requests to Feinstein’s office for clarification of her comment were not returned; her staff later blamed that on the furloughs caused by the government shutdown. That left McClatchy with only the quote, whichMcClatchy published in a story
that reported that Feinstein appeared to have confirmed something that NSA officials had been adamantly denying for weeks.
The story had barely been posted when David Grannis, staff director for the Senate Intelligence Committee, contacted McClatchy and insisted that Feinstein had been speaking “extemporaneously” and had “mistakenly” said the NSA collected location data.
“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," Grannis said in an email.
The specificity of the response, however, left some wiggle room, so McClatchy contacted Grannis for clarification: Did he mean that the NSA wasn't collecting location data under any program, including those authorized outside of USA Patriot Act's Section 215, the law under which NSA had been authorized to collect the records from cell phone companies?
Grannis said that was the correct way to read his statement.
The incident is just the latest example of instances in which intelligence officials and their chief overseers have misled the press and the public on the extent of the agency’s operations. While Grannis’s statement carefully specifies the necessity of a court order, the exchange was built on the premise that Feinstein spoke in error. Feinstein was, as The Post story makes clear, speaking the truth.
Grannis did not respond to a request for comment. Feinstein's spokesman, Brian Weiss, said there would be no comment Wednesday.