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Unusual Senate hearing leads to testy questions about NSA cellphone spying

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“General, if you’re responding to my question by not answering it, because you think that’s a classified matter, that is certainly your right,” Wyden said. He said he would continue to press for an answer. “I believe this is something the American people have a right to know,” he said.

Earlier this year, Wyden asked Clapper whether the NSA was collecting telecommunications data from millions of Americans. Clapper assured the senators it was not.

But he had to backtrack after leaks in June by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed extensive bulk collection efforts by the US government.

The Senate hearing came as several senators are promoting legislation to reform the way US intelligence is collected and overseen.

Both Clapper and Alexander told the senators they would work with lawmakers to enact any necessary reforms.

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.

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.

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