In a dramatic exchange Wednesday on Capitol Hill, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) demanded National Security Agency chief Keith Alexander explain why the agency was legally authorized to obtain his personal cellphone data.
Waving his Verizon phone from his seat, Merkley asked Alexander to explain "what authorized investigation gave you the grounds" to seize information on his calls and those of millions of other Americans.
Alexander sidestepped the question, saying the Department of Justice was responsible for outlining the legal authorities under which the agency could request such data. He pledged, though, that he would make an effort to provide that explanation to the committee.
"I will work hard to do that, and if I can't do that, I will come back to you and tell you why," he said.
Leaks last week from 29-year-old defense contractor Edward Snowden made public the NSA’s surveillance programs that monitor cellphone traffic and the Internet use of foreign citizens to identify and stop terror threats.
Alexander on Wednesday defended the programs before the Senate Appropriations Committee, saying that the call-tracking program had helped prevent “dozens” of terrorist attacks.
The revelations have led many lawmakers, who say they were not aware of the scope of the agency’s actions, to demand more information on the surveillance programs.
Merkley has been one of the most vocal critics of the top-secret NSA efforts, and on Tuesday proposed legislation that would declassify the legal opinions from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court justifying those programs.
"How, in a democracy, can you have a debate if you can't talk about what the plain language [of the law] means?" Merkley asked.
Alexander said calls to declassify the legal justifications made “sense” so that the government could better explain its actions to the American public.
He said the NSA "takes great pride" in its actions and believes "what we're doing to protect American citizens here is the right thing."
"The intent is to get the transparency there," he added.