NSA to senator: If we were collecting your phone records, we couldn't tell you
January 14th, 2014
11:22 PM ET

NSA to senator: If we were collecting your phone records, we couldn't tell you

(CNN) - National Security Agency chief Gen. Keith Alexander, in response to a letter from Sen. Bernie Sanders, said Tuesday that nothing the agency does "can fairly be characterized as 'spying on Members of Congress or American elected officials.'"

Alexander did not offer any further details about members of Congress specifically, arguing that doing so would require him to violate the civilian protections incorporated into the surveillance programs.

"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," Alexander wrote.Sanders, I-Vermont, had written to Alexander earlier this month asking whether the NSA is currently spying "on members of Congress or other American elected officials" or had in the past.

An NSA spokesperson gave a general response to the inquiry at the time, saying that "members of Congress have the same privacy protections as all U.S. persons" and that they were reviewing the senator's letter.

Alexander's letter, which was personally addressed to Sanders, was more specific.

Sanders has publicly questioned the legality of the NSA surveillance programs recently, calling them "a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches."

When asked about the balance between civilian privacy and counterterrorism surveillance earlier this month, Sanders told CNN: "We have to be vigorous in protecting the American people from terrorism. But I very strongly believe we can do that in the context of the U.S. Constitution. I believe what the NSA is doing now is not constitutional."

The push back against the possible surveillance practices of the NSA has created unlikely bedfellows in the Senate, with tea party favorite Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, suggesting the methods of data collection have "not been effective enough monitoring and surveilling bad guys" but rather "too broad with respect to law-abiding citizens."

Cruz added that the NSA's response to Sanders' question of whether members of Congress have had phone records or other data monitored "suggests the answer to that question was in the affirmative."

The NSA has been the subject of scrutiny since former agency contractor Edward Snowden released extensive classified documents on various domestic surveillance programs last year.

For his part, Sanders has introduced legislation that would prohibit the collection of phone records without a warrant, although it is unlikely such a law would make any progress in Congress.

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Filed under: Gen. Keith Alexander • NSA
soundoff (92 Responses)
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    The NSA knows all . I don't care if they were listening in on my phone calls I'm not doing anything wrong but other people definitely would not allow it . I think it's good .

    June 8, 2017 at 9:23 pm | Reply
  7. American Worker

    Isn't the refusal to tell Congressional oversight committees what they're supposed to be overseeing a thumbing of the Executive Branches nose at the Legislative Branch?

    January 22, 2014 at 1:31 pm | Reply
  8. PaulG

    Defund the NSA surveillance state, call your reps now. The best shot to reel the NSA in is to defund them.

    January 22, 2014 at 5:55 am | Reply
    • American Worker

      Who in the Executive Branch would enforce that?
      So far this President is selectively enforcing laws to pander to loyalist and to be punitive to any who challenge them.

      January 22, 2014 at 1:33 pm | Reply
  9. Yfgjk Ksfgk

    I know sensoship is spelled with a C

    January 17, 2014 at 1:48 pm | Reply
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    you mean write better...how is that possible with sensorship...

    January 17, 2014 at 1:46 pm | Reply
  11. Yfgjk Ksfgk

    BIG BIG BIG BROTHER LIVES AND IS EVEN STRONGER THAN EVER GROWING GOV. IN THE WORST POSSIBLE WAYS...watching planning ploting disrupting ruining lives all in secret...lying about everything as a guideing princable...No one is "more better".

    January 17, 2014 at 12:05 pm | Reply
  12. Yfgjk Ksfgk

    an illegal Alian living in America with an American Job that a real American does not have because a illegal alian told me He needed yet another American job in addition to all of His other American jobs He holds...DO YOU UNDERSTAND...DO YOU SEE THE PROBLEMS...injustice as far as the mind can see...a great American injustice...

    January 17, 2014 at 10:22 am | Reply
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    January 17, 2014 at 10:12 am | Reply
    • Myk


      January 17, 2014 at 1:04 pm | Reply
  14. Yfgjfgk Ksfhfgk

    Censorship is in full effect now.

    January 17, 2014 at 9:58 am | Reply
  15. Paul

    The power that be has spoken.

    January 17, 2014 at 8:20 am | Reply
  16. Mark

    "NSA to senator: If we were collecting your phone records, we couldn't tell you"

    Well, they just gave the lawmakers a law to make. It'll read "NSA must provide congress with phone records they collected on them. They can hide the records from the citizens of the US and other countries though".

    NSA... the new old CIA.

    January 16, 2014 at 4:02 pm | Reply
  17. Thbgbg Bterhyt

    The Powers that Be approve their Own work.

    January 15, 2014 at 11:17 pm | Reply


    January 15, 2014 at 8:23 pm | Reply
  19. k.daraa

    What does make sense is that the stricter the collection oversight, the more apt collectors are to quit collecting anything – leading to risks for the American people.

    January 15, 2014 at 6:19 pm | Reply
  20. John Smith

    America is the root of all terror. America has invaded sixty countries since world war 2.
    In 1953 America overthrow Iran's democratic government Mohammad Mosaddegh and installed a brutal dictator Shah. America helped Shah of Iran to establish secret police and killed thousands of Iranian people.
    During Iran-Iraq war evil America supported Suddam Hossain and killed millions of Iranian people. In 1989, America, is the only country ever, shot down Iran's civilian air plane, killing 290 people.
    In 2003,America invaded Iraq and killed 1,000,000+ innocent Iraqi people and 4,000,000+ Iraqi people were displaced.
    Now America is a failed state with huge debt. Its debt will be 22 trillion by 2015.

    January 15, 2014 at 4:00 pm | Reply
    • Myk

      Take a chill pill and think clearer

      January 17, 2014 at 1:05 pm | Reply
  21. Benjamin Franklin

    "Hey Bernie, F-off!

    Truly yours,


    January 15, 2014 at 3:44 pm | Reply
  22. Andrey

    So even if "members of Congress and American elected officials" did not consider themselves a part of American society when they were giving NSA the permission to spy on each and every American, NSA simply may not have realized at the time that the political caste was so different! So it looks like the answer is 'yes'!

    January 15, 2014 at 1:55 pm | Reply
  23. joe d

    welcome to the jewnited states if israel

    AIPAC/Israeli/jews/AIPAC owned congress=9/11

    January 15, 2014 at 10:33 am | Reply
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    January 15, 2014 at 9:02 am | Reply
  25. 1stlttightwad

    With the ambiguity of the NSA answers and also knowing that the IRS and the EPA have been used to quash or intimidate political opponents think about who you have sitting in the White House...a wannabe dictator

    January 15, 2014 at 4:12 am | Reply
  26. usxpatriate

    You should all go to youtube and search for "30c3 To Protect and Infect" If you think you know how you are being watched you need to watch this.

    January 15, 2014 at 3:53 am | Reply
  27. Reggie

    A year ago the NSA would have said "No we don't do that." (Am I right? Of course I am.)
    But now they are wary about getting caught in another lie. (Am I right about this too? You bet!)
    So they answer they way they do: "If we were spying on you, we couldn't tell you."

    A very educated guess at the true answer to the Senator's question might be inferred from this context.

    January 15, 2014 at 2:07 am | Reply
    • Reggie

      Obviously if they weren't spying on Congress they could say that they weren't!

      January 15, 2014 at 2:09 am | Reply
  28. Jetranger

    Whats funny is I don't truly think the NSA knows what their SPYING on', meanwhile 1500 more Illegals just jumped the border and will use stolen credit card numbers to go Shopping !

    January 15, 2014 at 1:45 am | Reply
    • Jeff

      Well, since you have no idea of exactly what information they use, or how they use it, your opinion is baseless.

      January 15, 2014 at 2:01 am | Reply
    • David Boyer

      Irrelevant ... if the NSA was after non americans it would matter ... NSA is only after everyday American Joe.

      January 15, 2014 at 3:18 am | Reply
  29. YesSedFred

    Hey man don's spy on us Senators, we're the good guys (besides we don't want you finding out about all out liaisons with little boys and girls) only spy on.......everyone else!!

    January 15, 2014 at 1:40 am | Reply
  30. Jack

    Kinda funny that all you have to do is watch a TV show to know that one of the top rules of criminals is dont use the telephone.

    January 15, 2014 at 1:31 am | Reply
    • FreedomTea

      Or E-mail. Or text. We all know that's what Christie meant when he was railing about the stupidity of his subordinates.

      January 15, 2014 at 2:30 am | Reply
  31. Richard

    Unpopular opinion I imagine, but I'm glad the NSA is spying on congress. These congressmen/women have access to highly sensitive information that could be invaluable to our enemies in Russia/china and elsewhere. It is important for the government to know these people are trustworthy arbiters of this highly classified information, without agencies like the NSA this information could easily be sold for millions by traitors, as has been proven in the past.

    January 15, 2014 at 1:23 am | Reply
    • gluonspring

      Thankfully no one IN the NSA could sell this information to bad guys. We can fully trust them to watch over us. Oh, wait!

      January 15, 2014 at 1:29 am | Reply
      • Richard

        That meaningless argument could be used for anything. Who's watching the IRS? The FBI? Walmart? Your doctors office? Visa MasterCard ? The social security administration? They all have your information. I've had many dealings with the federal government over my lifetime with my business and can tell you they have always been even handed and fair compared to state government I have delt with. To each his own, I'd take the Feds any day of the weak. They have no axe to grind.

        January 15, 2014 at 1:39 am |
    • SK

      Basically, all intelligence services are just a bunch of criminals. They all run the show, in collusion with enemies (their intelligence services), with no regard to their own law or to democratic values. Disrespecting own law is a sign of oppressive administrations, normal in case of communists, tyrants, and as is seen clearly, the USA. You are either naive or just want to spin things in their favour.

      Without help from intelligence agencies of USA, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia there would be no Taliban. They needed a foe, so they made one. That practice stems at least from good times of tzar's Ochrana. Probably will end the same way.

      January 15, 2014 at 2:05 am | Reply
    • Jeff

      Equally unpopular as well, you then must be glad that the NSA is spying on American citizens and non-Americans all over the world. After all, the world is a dangerous place and the USA has many enemies who would like nothing more than seeing its demise. The American government has an obligation to protect itself.

      January 15, 2014 at 2:09 am | Reply
      • David

        Actually no. The The American government has an obligation to protect "The People" it serves.

        Or at least that's the way it's *supposed to be*.

        January 15, 2014 at 3:53 am |
  32. ggnt

    i think the bad guys know not to use phones, text etc. they will prob use the good ole usps. the only people being punished are ordinary citizens. The is basically what communist countries do to their own people

    January 15, 2014 at 1:18 am | Reply
    • Ester7

      ALL meta data is monitored just like phone data. Every source and destination address, along with date is entered into the mega data base of the FBI/NSA.

      January 15, 2014 at 3:56 am | Reply
  33. Jesse

    The NSA should be dismantled and done away with.

    I would rather a terrorist stole my life than have my government steal my freedom.

    When did we become to weak, so afraid in this country that we would allow this to happen?

    Our vets die for our freedoms so the government can take them away one by one.

    "When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross."

    January 15, 2014 at 1:16 am | Reply
  34. Tim Barnett

    Well Senator, join the club, along with the rest of the U.S. citizens, world leader and anyone else the nsa wants to spy on. This administration is so far out of hand and contrrol ! No wonder experts are saying that in the future the obama years will be known as the criminal years! When will we have had enough??

    January 15, 2014 at 12:55 am | Reply
    • Alan Powell

      If you're going to post on a topic, please at least be informed. The NSA was engaged in its current practices under Bush as well. Gee, why weren't the Republicans complaining then (Congressional members are cleared to NSA programs). And before you jump to conclusions, Obama will go done as the worst president in American history. Even Nixon accomplished more for America than Obama.

      January 15, 2014 at 1:38 am | Reply
    • Anti Propaganda

      Funny the NSA has been around over 50 years Bush started homeland security and the patriot act yet its this administration that caused all of this umm put down the crack pipe Tim

      January 15, 2014 at 1:43 am | Reply
    • YesSedFred

      Never mind that all of this was started by the Bush Administration, don't let actual facts get in the way of your stupidity

      January 15, 2014 at 1:50 am | Reply
  35. tony

    WE THE PEEP-HOLE. . . . .

    January 15, 2014 at 12:50 am | Reply
  36. smh

    ....and that is precisely the point at which any governmental agency has just declared itself in dire need of being eliminated.

    January 15, 2014 at 12:47 am | Reply
  37. Bessie Hyde

    Actually the NSA answer makes perfect sense if you understand the restrictions that they operate under. They can not access a name associated with a specific phone record without a FISA court order and a valid intelligence need. They can not answer Sanders question any more directly. Things are not as sinister as people think.

    January 15, 2014 at 12:43 am | Reply
    • D


      January 15, 2014 at 12:45 am | Reply
    • D

      But therein lies the problem as well...it is not difficult at all to plug a phone number, or any other metadata for that matter, into Google Search with a few filters and determine that information. There's really no valid protection there.

      January 15, 2014 at 12:46 am | Reply
      • drew

        Anyone who doesn't know how a database works, isn't going to understand that the NSA looking at your phone number is the least of your worries..

        January 15, 2014 at 2:10 am |
    • Alan Powell

      HOOOORAY! An informed lucid comment! Sanders letter was nothing more than a PR stunt. He knows, or at least should know what the NSA can and can not say in public. He could have also made a request through secure channels and might have gotten a better answer. But no, like all the d-bags in DC he wants to grab attention. Again, Bessie, nice insightful comment.

      January 15, 2014 at 1:46 am | Reply
    • tyelko

      Would you be interested in a plot of land with a view of the sea of tranquility?

      You are horribly naive. No, the NSA does not need a warrant from the FISA court. They SHOULD ask for one. But as long as the data is collected AT the NSA, it is accessible, and the FISA court is not there to look over every NSA operator's shoulder 24/7. It is a peace of cake to access the data, and the fact that they have been tracking lovers etc. shows how much abuse happens.

      January 15, 2014 at 11:37 am | Reply
  38. Mopery

    Classic doublespeak. They are busy trying to protect us from ourselves. We're all guilty until proven innocent now, better get used to it, proles!

    January 15, 2014 at 12:43 am | Reply
  39. lerianis

    Bullplop. If a g'damned SENATOR cannot get out of them whether they are targeting him or not..... The sheer arrogance on the part of the NSA is mind-boggling here.

    January 15, 2014 at 12:37 am | Reply
    • bspurloc

      the patriot act says they arent allowed to know. if they REALLY want to know they will get rid of the Patriot Act. but they wont cuz they all about getn gubbermint outta our lives...

      January 15, 2014 at 12:42 am | Reply
  40. bspurloc

    PATRIOT ACT. Thanks Bush the wmd liar

    January 15, 2014 at 12:35 am | Reply
    • Steve

      It turns out France was right.

      January 15, 2014 at 12:41 am | Reply
    • poopyonastick

      Thank Obama for continuing and expanding it...I don't like either one, but Bush stopped serving two terms ago. Obama had plenty of opportunity to dismantle it.

      January 15, 2014 at 12:44 am | Reply
    • PeterGelezius

      Why fix the blame? Fix the problem

      January 15, 2014 at 8:58 am | Reply
  41. rad666

    "Alexander did not offer any further details about members of Congress specifically, arguing that doing so would require him to violate the civilian protections incorporated into the surveillance programs."

    I thought they were trying to protect civilians with the spying to root out terrorism?

    Do they suspect Congress members of terrorism?

    January 15, 2014 at 12:33 am | Reply
  42. reply

    What kind of country is my grandkids going to inherit? Ignore the Bill of Rights?

    January 15, 2014 at 12:26 am | Reply
  43. reply

    Sounds like J. Edger and Nixon. Guess we may as well say you have no 4th Amendment Rights. What is next, ignore the 5th Amendment rights unless you are an Obama appointee?

    January 15, 2014 at 12:24 am | Reply
    • bspurloc

      u just figure out the Patriot Act took away your 4th huh...
      wah wah bear arms is the cry...

      January 15, 2014 at 12:36 am | Reply
  44. Keith

    They are spying on Senators and Congressmen, it makes it much easier to black mail them

    January 15, 2014 at 12:23 am | Reply
    • Alan Powell

      Maybe there's something to what you say? If Congress won't burn down the national debt, might the NSA have quiet little one on one's to show them the error of their ways?

      January 15, 2014 at 1:56 am | Reply
      • Keith

        The NSA doesn't care about debt. they only care about self preservation and growing their agency.

        January 15, 2014 at 8:32 am |
  45. rad666

    "We can tell you, but then we would have to terminate you with extreme prejudice," said NSA rep.

    January 15, 2014 at 12:17 am | Reply
  46. joe

    and this is a surprise to who? So who is watching the watchers?

    January 15, 2014 at 12:11 am | Reply
    • Mike

      Snowden, Assagne, etc...

      January 15, 2014 at 12:14 am | Reply
      • Matt

        And meanwhile the Russians and Chinese, with lesser intelligence-gathering tools and lesser moral qualms about pursuing aggressive, self-interested agendas gain a little breather.

        January 15, 2014 at 12:22 am |
      • bspurloc

        Yes snowden and assange came along and did not INFORM us this was happened as we already knew it was happening via the Patriot Act.... so why do u act like they informed us. we already knew this. congress argued about it, news organization ran stories on it the aclu sued... yet u seem to have not cared... ah yes because of Saddam...

        January 15, 2014 at 12:39 am |
  47. California

    In other words they're doing many other things they're never going to tell anyone about.

    January 15, 2014 at 12:05 am | Reply
  48. Peter Gerdeman

    This is another example where the Government ignores the People; spies on them; and uses that information for business and/or geo-political goals! Time to eliminate that mission, and cut their budget in half. These are not glorious troops – but pathetic Stalin-police state efforts!

    January 15, 2014 at 12:05 am | Reply
    • Alan Powell

      You obviously have no clue what you're talking about. The NSA has not been accused of spying on any Americans, nor has it been found to be conducting operations beyond its legal authority or in the absence of FAISA oversight. Remember all the brouhaha over the Patriot Act? Or maybe you weren't paying attention which is why your hand wringing now. And the reference to Stalin was pathetic. I mean really, you're trying to strike a comparison between the United States of America and Joseph Stalin! The man responsible for the death of something in the neighborhood of 40 MILLION people! Really! Go back to sleep and please never vote or have children!

      January 15, 2014 at 2:09 am | Reply
      • Craig

        I guess you missed that part a few months ago where NSA employees were found to have been tracking lovers. Hmmmm. Given that the data is available, and given an NSA rep could easily dummy up some sort of "we think this guy might be dirty because he was talking to somebody else with think might be dirty" warrant request, I'm betting FISA hasn't always been effective as a watchdog. In theory...sure. In practice....erm, not so much.

        January 15, 2014 at 2:43 am |
  49. Bigdog

    Unfortunately it is alright with congress if the common man gets checked on, but not the privileged class.

    January 14, 2014 at 11:59 pm | Reply
    • bspurloc

      and why they keep renewing the Patriot Act and let it pass also

      January 15, 2014 at 12:40 am | Reply
      • Random

        Good question. Allowing it to expire would make this a somewhat more reasonable question to be asking.

        January 15, 2014 at 4:37 am |
    • Alan Powell

      Please explain how the "common man gets checked on" what ever that means.

      January 15, 2014 at 2:12 am | Reply
  50. Random

    Have to admire you guys being able to drum up a question of IF when the answer is already there if you know where to look. Meanwhile everyone argues about the question instead of the answer we had first.

    January 14, 2014 at 11:26 pm | Reply

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