Some Obama administration officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, have defended Alexander with assertions that the agency's internal definition of "data" does not cover "metadata" such as the trillions of American call records that the NSA is now known to have collected and stored since 2006. Those records include the telephone numbers of the parties and the times and durations of conversations, among other details, but not their content or the names of callers.
The NSA's authoritative definition of data includes those call records. "Signals Intelligence Management Directive 421," which is quoted in secret oversight and auditing guidelines, states that "raw SIGINT data . . . includes, but is not limited to, unevaluated and/or unminimized transcripts, gists, facsimiles, telex, voice, and some forms of computer-generated data, such as call event records and other Digital Network Intelligence (DNI) metadata as well as DNI message text."
In the case of the collection effort that confused calls placed from Washington with those placed from Egypt, it is unclear what the NSA meant by a "large number" of intercepted calls. A spokesman declined to discuss the matter.
The NSA has different reporting requirements for each branch of government and each of its legal authorities. The "202" collection was deemed irrelevant to any of them. "The issue pertained to Metadata ONLY so there were no defects to report," according to the author of the secret memo from March 2013.
The large number of database query incidents, which involve previously collected communications, confirms long-standing suspicions that the NSA's vast data banks — with code names such as MARINA, PINWALE and XKEYSCORE — house a considerable volume of information about Americans. Ordinarily the identities of people in the United States are masked, but intelligence "customers" may request unmasking, either one case at a time or in standing orders.