Alexander and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on proposed reforms to the NSA's surveillance of phone and internet usage around the world, exposed in June by former NSA analyst Edward Snowden. But neither spy chief spent much time discussing proposed reforms; instead they were questioned about new potential abuses that have come to light since then.
Alexander denied a New York Times report published Saturday that said NSA searched social networks of Americans searching for foreign terror connections, and detailed 12 previously revealed cases of abuse by NSA employees who used the network for unsanctioned missions like spying on a spouse. He said all employees were caught and most were disciplined.
Alexander and Clapper also told lawmakers that the government shutdown that began Tuesday over a budget impasse is seriously damaging the intelligence community's ability to guard against threats. They said they're keeping counterterrorism staff at work as well as those providing intelligence to troops in Afghanistan, but that some 70 percent of the civilian workforce has been furloughed. Any details on the jobs held by the furloughed employees is classified.
Congress is mulling changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that some believe allows the NSA too much freedom in gathering U.S. data as part of spying on targets overseas.
Alexander told the committee that his agency once tested, in 2010 and 2011, whether it could track Americans' cellphone locations, but he says the NSA does not use that capability, leaving that to the FBI to build a criminal or foreign intelligence case against a suspect and track him.
"This may be something that is a future requirement for the country but it is not right now because when we identify a number, we give it to the FBI," Alexander said. "When they get their probable cause, they can get the locational data."
He said if the NSA thought it needed to track someone that way, it would go back to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court — the secret court that authorizes its spying missions — for approval. He added that his agency reported the tests to both House and Senate intelligence committees, and that the data was never used for intelligence analysis.
Only last week, Alexander refused to answer questions from Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., about whether his agency had ever collected or planned to collect such "cell-site" data, as it is called, saying it was classified, but the general said the NSA released the information in letters to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees ahead of the Judiciary Committee meeting Wednesday.
Wyden was not satisfied with Alexander's answer.
"After years of stonewalling on whether the government has ever tracked or planned to track the location of law abiding Americans through their cellphones, once again, the intelligence leadership has decided to leave most of the real story secret — even when the truth would not compromise national security," he said.
Alexander acknowledged his agency collects data from social networks and other commercial databases to hunt foreign terror suspects but is not using the information to build private files on Americans. He said the operations are only used in pursuing foreign agents and sweeping up information on Americans if they are connected to those suspects by phone calls or other data.
Alexander said that not all social network searches are authorized by the secret FISA court, but he added the agency's searches are proper and audited internally. The authority flows from a presidential executive order on national security dating back to the Reagan administration in 1981, he said, adding: "It allows us to understand what the foreign nexus is."
Alexander called a recent New York Times report on the searches "inaccurate and wrong." The Times said the NSA was exploiting huge collections of personal data to create sophisticated graphs of some Americans' social connections. The Times said the private data included Facebook posts and banking, flight, GPS location and voting records.
Alexander denied the NSA was building "dossiers," or personal files on Americans, even though the Times story never specifically suggested that was being done.
He said collecting such private metadata is "the most important way" to track a potential terrorist once they have been identified. He also said Americans are only directly targeted by such searches when they are under investigation for possible terror ties or they are the targets of terror activities. He added that suspected terrorists operating inside the U.S. could also be targeted under those private data searches.
As for the incidents when NSA analysts did abuse their spying powers, Alexander told senators none of them involved the programs that collect American telephone records or email data.
"Nine of those were abroad," he said. "Three were (in the U.S.) but involved persons abroad on two of those. And one was on a spouse or girlfriend."
The NSA's inspector general detailed the violation in a letter to Congress that was released last week. Several cases clearly showed government officials using the surveillance system to probe for information about spouses or partners. In one case, an internal investigation found that the official had made internal surveillance queries on the phones of nine foreign women, including his girlfriend, without authorization and had at times listened in on some phone conversations. The same official also collected data on a U.S. person's phone.
Alexander said all had been disciplined, and had retired, resigned or been reprimanded, except for one where there wasn't enough evidence to prove wrongdoing.
Both Alexander and Clapper spoke of reduced capability of their workforce during the government shutdown. Clapper said he has tried to keep on enough employees to guard against "imminent threats to life or property," but may have to call more back to work if the shutdown continues.
"The danger here... will accumulate over time. The damage will be insidious," Clapper said. Clapper even raised the specter of treason, saying financial stress could make his intelligence officers vulnerable to being bought off by foreign spies.
The federal government effectively shut down as of midnight Tuesday because of a standoff over the federal budget.
___ Follow Kimberly Dozier on Twitter at http://twitter.com/kimberlydozier
SEATTLE (AP) — A fire that destroyed a Tesla electric car near Seattle began in the vehicle's battery pack, officials said Wednesday, creating challenges for firefighters who tried to put out the flames.
Company spokeswoman Liz Jarvis-Shean said the fire Tuesday was caused by a large metallic object that directly hit one of the battery pack's modules in the pricey Model S. The fire was contained to a small section at the front of the vehicle, she said, and no one was injured.
Shares of Tesla Motors Inc. fell more than 6 percent Wednesday after an Internet video showed flames spewing from the vehicle, which Tesla has touted as the safest car in America.
The liquid-cooled 85 kilowatt-hour battery in the Tesla Model S is mounted below the passenger compartment floor and uses lithium-ion chemistry similar to the batteries in laptop computers and mobile phones. Investors and companies have been particularly sensitive to the batteries' fire risks, especially given issues in recent years involving the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid car and Boeing's new 787 plane.
In an incident report released under Washington state's public records law, firefighters wrote that they appeared to have Tuesday's fire under control, but the flames reignited. Crews found that water seemed to intensify the fire, so they began using a dry chemical extinguisher.
After dismantling the front end of the vehicle and puncturing holes in the battery pack, responders used a circular saw to cut an access hole in the front section to apply water to the battery, according to documents. Only then was the fire extinguished.
The incident happened as the Tesla's driver was traveling southbound on state Route 167 through the Seattle suburb of Kent, said Trooper Chris Webb of the Washington State Patrol. The driver said he believed he had struck some metal debris on the freeway, so he exited the highway and the vehicle became disabled.
The driver, who did not return a phone call seeking comment, told authorities he began to smell something burning and then the vehicle caught fire.
Firefighters arrived within 3 minutes of the first call. It's not clear from records how long the firefighting lasted, but crews remained on scene for 2 1/2 hours.
Tesla said the flames were contained to the front of the $70,000 vehicle due to its design and construction.
"This was not a spontaneous event," Jarvis-Shean said. "Every indication we have at this point is that the fire was a result of the collision and the damage sustained through that."
There was too much damage from the fire to see what damage debris may have caused, Webb said.
The automobile website Jalopnik.com posted photos of the blaze that it says were taken by a reader, along with a video.
Shares of Palo Alto, Calif.-based Tesla have risen more than 400 percent this year. But some investors likely were alarmed that the fire could be an indication of a flaw in the company's battery packs, and Tesla shares fell $12.05 to $180.95 Wednesday.
Also contributing to the stock's decline was a rare analyst downgrade. R.W. Baird analyst Ben Kallo cut his rating on the stock from "Outperform" to "Neutral," telling investors that while he's still bullish on Tesla's long-term prospects, the company has "significant milestones" during the next 18 months that come with risk.
The company's battery system and the Model S itself have received rave reviews, including a top crash-test score from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and a tie for the highest auto rating ever recorded by Consumer Reports magazine.
But lithium-ion batteries have raised concerns in other vehicles.
Two years ago, battery fires broke out in three Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid cars after crash-testing, but NHTSA investigators determined that the Volt was no more risky than vehicles with conventional gasoline engines.
Officials from General Motors Co. and the government believed the fires were caused by coolant leaking from damaged plastic casing around the batteries after side-impact test crashes. At the time, they said there were no real-world fires in any Volts.
Still, the fires tarnished the Volt's reputation and cut into sales. Recently, though, sales have recovered. Sales are up about 3 percent this year, with GM selling about 17,000 Volts through September.
Earlier this year, Boeing Co.'s worldwide fleet of 787s was grounded because lithium-ion batteries overheated or caught fire. Flights resumed four months later after a revamped battery system was installed.
Under normal circumstances, investigators from NHTSA, the government's auto safety watchdog, would travel to Washington state to investigate the Tesla crash. But with the partial government shutdown, NHTSA's field investigations have been suspended.
WASHINGTON (AP) — Taking out a mortgage. Getting married in a park. Going for a fall foliage drive. Cashing a check.
Who knew that so many random activities of daily life could be imperiled by a shutdown of the federal government?
Americans are finding that "the government" entails a lot more than the stereotype of faceless D.C. bureaucrats cranking out red tape.
And so it is that two dozen October weddings, including nine this week, are in jeopardy because they're scheduled for monument sites on the National Mall. Ditto for a New Jersey couple planning to marry at the Grand Canyon.
Mike Cassesso and MaiLien Le's permit to get married Saturday on the lawn near the Jefferson Memorial looks to be among the casualties, giving rise to a new Twitter hashtag for their #shutdownwedding. They're looking at alternate sites, including the restaurant booked for their reception.
Also canceled: a weekend Ku Klux Klan rally at Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.
Want to take a drive along Virginia's popular Skyline Drive to take in the fall colors in Shenandoah National Park? Not till the government reopens.
It's not just romance, tourism and public events that are in jeopardy.
Consider the Wisconsin farmer who can't cash a check for a cow he sold.
Ben Brancel, the state's agriculture secretary, said that because the farmer has a loan from the Farm Service Agency, he can't cash the check without both his own signature and one from an FSA official, unavailable during the shutdown.
"Our advice to him was he was going to have to wait, that there wasn't anything he could do about it," Brancel said.
Ready to buy your first house?
Borrowers applying for a mortgage can expect delays, especially if the shutdown is prolonged. That's because many lenders need government confirmation of applicants' income tax returns and Social Security data. Mortgage industry officials say they expect bottlenecks on closing loans if the shutdown stretches on for more than a few days.
In addition, low- to moderate-income borrowers and first-time homebuyers seeking government-insured mortgages for single-family homes from the Federal Housing Administration can expect longer waits because of sharp reductions in FHA staffing.
Even workers who get their paychecks from a state government aren't safe from the ripple effects of a federal shutdown.
An assortment of state workers around the country are on furlough because the money for their jobs includes dollars from Washington. Among those are hundreds of workers at Arkansas' Military Department and one at the Crowley's Ridge Technical Institute, a vocational school in Forrest City, Ark.
In Illinois, the furloughs include 20 workers in the state Department of Employment Security and 53 in the Department of Military Affairs.
"These are the first, and there may be more," said Abdon Pallasch, the state's assistant budget director.
Want to escape the shutdown worries with a bike ride on the C&O Canal, a popular 184-mile trail and national park between Washington and Cumberland, Md.?
Closed. Those thinking of ignoring the closure notice and going anyway should consider this: Restrooms will be locked and handles removed from water pumps along the way.
One possible silver lining to shutdown annoyances writ small and large: The whole thing could serve as a teachable moment for all those people who tell pollsters that they want budget cuts — as long as they aren't directly affected.
"As time goes by, more and more people see these little things that they took for granted," said Ed Lorenzen, a policy adviser at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonpartisan group pushing for spending discipline.
He said the shutdown could serve as a reminder that "you're not going to be able to the balance the budget just by cutting spending in Washington that doesn't affect people."
Associated Press writer Andrew Miga contributed to this report.