WASHINGTON -- The director of the National Security Agency said Tuesday the government’s sweeping surveillance programs have foiled some 50 terrorist plots worldwide, including one directed at the New York Stock Exchange, in a forceful defense of the spy operations.
Army Gen. Keith Alexander said the two recently disclosed programs—one that gathers U.S. phone records and another that is designed to track the use of U.S.-based Internet servers by foreigners with possible links to terrorism—are critical in the terrorism fight.
Alexander, seated side by side with top officials from the FBI and Justice Department at a rare, open congressional hearing, described how the operations work under questioning from members of the House Intelligence Committee who displayed a supportive demeanor. The officials as well as members of the panel repeatedly bemoaned the leaks by Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old former contractor.
Alexander said Snowden’s leaks have caused “irreversible and significant damage to this nation” that also undermined the U.S. relationship with its allies.
Asked what was next for Snowden, Sean Joyce, deputy director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said simply, “Justice.”
Intelligence officials last week disclosed some details on two thwarted attacks—one targeting the New York subway system, one to bomb a Danish newspaper office that had published the cartoon depictions of the Prophet Mohammad. Alexander and Joyce offered additional details on two other foiled plots, including one targeting Wall Street.
Under questioning, Joyce said the NSA was able to identify an extremist in Yemen who was in touch with an individual in Kansas City, Mo. They were able to identify co-conspirators and thwart a plot to bomb the New York Stock Exchange.
Joyce also said a terrorist financier inside the U.S. was identified and arrested in October 2007, thanks to a phone record provided by the NSA. The individual was making phone calls to a known designated terrorist group overseas.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, asked if that country was Somalia, which Joyce confirmed, though he said U.S. counterterrorist activities in that country are classified.
The programs “assist the intelligence community to connect the dots,” Alexander told the committee. He said the intelligence community would provide the committees with more specifics on the 50 cases as well as the exact numbers on foiled plots in Europe.
Alexander said the Internet program had helped stop 90 percent of the 50-plus plots he described. He said just over 10 of the plots thwarted had a connection inside the U.S., and most were helped by the review of the phone records.
Alexander got no disagreement from the leaders of the panel, who have been outspoken in backing the programs since Snowden disclosed information to The Washington Post and the Guardian newspapers.
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the committee, and Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, the panel’s top Democrat, said the programs were vital to the intelligence community and assailed Snowden’s actions as criminal.
“It is at times like these where our enemies within become almost as damaging as our enemies on the outside,” Rogers said.
Ruppersberger said the “brazen disclosures” put the United States and its allies at risk.
Committee members were incredulous about the scope of the information that Snowden was able to access and then disclose.
Alexander said Snowden had worked for 12 months in an information technology position at the NSA office in Hawaii under another contract preceding his three-month contract with Booz Allen.
“Egregious, egregious leaks,” Joyce said.
The general counsel for the intelligence community said the NSA cannot target phone conversations between callers inside the U.S.—even if one of those callers was someone who was targeted for surveillance when outside the country.
The director of national intelligence’s legal chief, Robert S. Litt, said that if the NSA finds it has accidentally gathered a phone call by a target who had traveled into the U.S. without their knowledge, they have to “purge” that from their system. The same goes for an accidental collection of any conversation because of an error.
Litt said those incidents are then reported to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which “pushes back” and asks how it happened, and what the NSA is doing to fix the problem so it doesn’t happen again.
Deputy NSA Director Chris Inglis said a limited number of officials at the agency could authorize dissemination of information to the FBI related to a U.S. citizen, and only after determining it was necessary to understand a counterterrorism issue. Information related to an American who is found not to be relevant to a counterterrorism investigation must be destroyed, he added.
Alexander said there were 10 people involved in that process, including himself and Inglis.
The hearing came the morning after President Barack Obama, who is attending the G-8 summit in Ireland, vigorously defended the surveillance programs in a lengthy interview Monday, calling them transparent—even though they are authorized in secret.
“It is transparent,” Obama told PBS’ Charlie Rose in an interview. “That’s why we set up the FISA court,” the president added, referring to the secret court set up by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that authorizes two recently disclosed programs: one that gathers U.S. phone records and another that is designed to track the use of U.S.-based Internet servers by foreigners with possible links to terrorism.
Obama said he has named representatives to a privacy and civil liberties oversight board to help in the debate over just how far government data gathering should be allowed to go—a discussion that is complicated by the secrecy surrounding the FISA court, with hearings held at undisclosed locations and with only government lawyers present. The orders that result are all highly classified.
“We’re going to have to find ways where the public has an assurance that there are checks and balances in place ... that their phone calls aren’t being listened into; their text messages aren’t being monitored, their emails are not being read by some big brother somewhere,” the president said.
A senior administration official said Obama had asked Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to determine what more information about the two programs could be made public, to help better explain them. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly.
Snowden on Monday accused members of Congress and administration officials of exaggerating their claims about the success of the data gathering programs, including pointing to the arrest of the would-be New York subway bomber, Najibullah Zazi, in 2009.
In an online interview with The Guardian in which he posted answers to questions, he said Zazi could have been caught with narrower, targeted surveillance programs—a point Obama conceded in his interview without mentioning Snowden.
“We might have caught him some other way,” Obama said. “We might have disrupted it because a New York cop saw he was suspicious. Maybe he turned out to be incompetent and the bomb didn’t go off. But, at the margins, we are increasing our chances of preventing a catastrophe like that through these programs,” he said.
Even before the post-Sept. 11 expanded surveillance, the FBI had the authority to - and did, regularly - monitor email accounts linked to terrorists. Before the laws changed, the government needed to get a warrant by showing that the target was a suspected member of a terrorist group. In the Zazi case, that connection already was well-established.