Defending Surveillance

NSA officials say programs have stopped over 50 terror plots

Keith Alexander / AP

The two National Security Agency surveillance programs recently leaked to the media have helped to stop over 50 terrorist plots, the director of the National Security Agency told the House Select Committee on Intelligence Tuesday morning.

National Security Agency (NSA) director Gen. Keith Alexander and other officials involved with the two surveillance programs explained and defended the program to the House committee in a rare open hearing.

Edward Snowden, at the time a systems administrator for the NSA, leaked highly classified information to a British newspaper and the Washington Post about two NSA surveillance programs. One (named "215") allows the NSA to gather phone records within the United States, and the other (named "702") allows the NSA to listen to phone conversations and gather emails of foreigners connected to terrorism.

Alexander and the other witnesses disclosed at the hearing two instances in which the surveillance programs have helped to stop terrorist plots and discussed two other previously released plots.

The NSA in one targeted a known terrorist in Yemen through the 702 program and by intercepting his communications learned he was communicating with a man in Kansas City. The NSA tipped off the FBI, who investigated and learned that the man in Kansas City was plotting to blow up the New York Stock Exchange.

The 215 authority in the second instance allowed the FBI to reopen a case it had closed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The NSA provided the FBI with the phone number of a person who had previously had contact with a known terrorist abroad. The FBI investigated and learned that this man was providing financial support for a terrorist group in Somalia.

The programs help the intelligence community to connect disparate pieces of intelligence, Alexander said.

The Sept. 11 attacks "occurred in part because of a failure on the part of our government to connect those dots," Alexander said.

The witnesses and congressmen lamented the leak of the programs’ details.

"They have produced a huge amount of valuable intelligence over the years," said Robert Litt, general counsel for the director of national intelligence. He worried the intelligence community would lose the ability to gather the valuable information because of the leaks, although they would not know for months how it has affected them.

"This widespread leak by a 29-year-old American systems administrator put our country and our allies in danger by giving the terrorists a really good look at the playbook that we use to protect our country," said committee ranking member Dutch Ruppersberger (D., Md.).

The witnesses sought to correct misconceptions about the programs and outlined the ways that the programs protect civil liberties.

Litt pushed back on the idea that the 702 program represents a loosening of standards on the government. He contended that this kind of surveillance has traditionally been done only by the executive, and the 702 program places the surveillance of overseas terrorists under judicial oversight.

Litt also contended that the overseeing court conducts rigorous oversight and does not simply "rubber stamp" whatever the NSA brings to it.

Deputy Attorney General James Cole outlined the regulations and checks on the two NSA surveillance programs that have been leaked.

Cole emphasized that each program has the involvement of all three branches of government in a "robust and fairly intimate way." Congress created the programs, the executive initiates their use, and then a special court authorizes specific uses of the authority, he said.

Committee chairman Mike Rogers (R., Mich.) said his committee has been regularly briefed on the program and described the program as "legal, court approved, and subject to an extensive oversight regime."

The NSA has strict regulations on how it can use the data it gathers, the witnesses testified. There has to be "reasonable, articulable" evidence of a person’s connection to terrorism to justify searching the database of phone records, Cole said. The result of the restrictions has been a limited number of searches: The NSA only allowed the gathered phone data to be searched for 300 numbers in 2012.

The program that allows the NSA to gather the content of phone calls and emails only allows the NSA to target individuals outside of the United States, and it cannot  be used to target American citizens outside of the world, Cole said.

The leaks have become another source of controversy for the embattled Obama administration and encountered the ire of civil libertarians in both parties.

"The misperceptions have been great," said Rogers.