NSA 18June2013
Director of the National Security Agency (NSA) U.S. Army General Keith Alexander testifies before a U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on recently disclosed NSA surveillance programs, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington June 18, 2013. Reuters

The head of the National Security Agency on Tuesday denied the assertion by confessed leaker Edward Snowden that analysts at NSA have the ability to listen to the phone calls of American citizens.

Snowden’s accusation of lax security measures safeguarding Americans’ private communications is one of the major privacy concerns raised by the leaks. Speaking at a House Intelligence Committee hearing on the government surveillance programs revealed by Snowden’s leaks, NSA Director General Keith Alexander said that employees like Snowden had neither the authority nor the ability to spy on Americans.

Does the NSA "have the ability to listen to Americans’ phone calls or read their emails under these two programs?” Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, asked Alexander.

“No, we do not have that authority,” Alexander replied.

“Does the technology exist at the NSA to flip a switch by some analyst to listen to Americans’ phone calls or read their emails?” Rogers said.

“No,” Alexander said again.

The distinction between authority versus the ability is an important one. Snowden, who is in Hong Kong, where he plans to fight extradition to the United States, has said on multiple occasions that contractors such as himself have the ability -- even if not the explicit the authority -- to wiretap Americans phones. “Persons do enjoy limited policy protections … and one very weak technical protection -- a near-the-front-end filter at our ingestion points,” Snowden wrote Monday during a Q&A hosted by the Guardian newspaper. “The filter is constantly out of date, is set at what is euphemistically referred to as the ‘widest allowable aperture,’ and can be stripped out at any time.”

NSA Deputy Director John Chris Inglis, also testifying, said that only 20 analysts and their two supervisors “are authorized to approve numbers that may be used to query” the database of telephony metadata the agency collects on all Americans. Later in the hearing, Alexander noted that in order for the NSA to abuse the metadata by looking up a specific number outside of the approved process, one of those 22 approved persons would have to “break the law.” Because the process of identifying and running queries on numbers is audited, he added, such a breach would be discovered. “We have never had that happen,” he said.

The officials did acknowledge that there are times when the NSA accidentally pulls information on an American whom they are not supposed to be monitoring, usually the result of getting a digit in a phone number wrong. Another witness, Deputy Attorney General James Cole, assured the committee that when errant targeting occurs, it is reported to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which of the checks in place to oversees the surveillance programs. He also stressed that any such data collected in error is expunged from their records.

Snowden, who was one of about 1,000 systems administrators working for or under contract at the NSA, has made claims that contradict Tuesday's testimony. “I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant to a federal judge to even the president if I had a personal email,” Snowden said in an interview with the Guardian newspaper.