WASHINGTON — Officials claimed today that a controversial intelligence-gathering program has helped to foil more than 50 potential terrorist plots against the US or American interests over the past decade.
Ten of those plots were aimed at targets within the US, said Gen. Keith Alexander, head of the embattled National Security Agency (NSA), which is pushing back against the explosive accusations of former contractor Edward Snowden, who leaked information about NSA data-gathering programs to the Washington Post and The Guardian newspapers this month.
Testifying before the House Select Committee on Intelligence, officials from the NSA and the FBI took pains to reiterate that they are not collecting personal information about US citizens.
Alexander and FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce offered more details on how data-gathering programs have helped foil four terrorism plots against the United States, explaining that the 50-plus other cases remain classified.
During questioning, Rep. Mac Thornberry managed to force the disclosure of even more details of one of the cases while trying to prod Joyce into giving the panel additional information about how effective the program has been.
Speaking carefully, Joyce explained that the FBI opened then quickly closed one particular investigation of a San Diego man shortly after 9/11, only to reopen it a few years later after the NSA “tipped us off that this individual had indirect contacts with a known terrorist overseas.” The FBI then was able to arrest the suspect in October 2007 while also identifying “additional individuals through a legal process and were able to disrupt this terrorist activity.”
Thornberry pushed a little bit more, asking if the case involved suicide bombers from Somalia, to which Joyce somewhat gingerly replied that the case involved an individual who was coordinating financing for an overseas terror group involved in suicide bombings in Somalia.
The officials gave testimony before a mostly friendly room, as hinted at by the hearing’s official title: “How Disclosed NSA Programs Protect Americans, and Why Disclosure Aids Our Adversaries.”
Still, the intelligence officials went to great pains to explain that the only data they are able to obtain without specific warrants are phone numbers, and what other numbers have interacted with them, saying they are not allowed to collect any data on calls made within the United States or by US citizens abroad.
James Cole, the deputy attorney general, told the House panel that while the “702 program” has the ability to extract the content of emails and phone calls between a previously identified overseas target and someone in the United States, officials have to get an individual warrant from a court before they can then listen to domestic calls or emails by people who have interacted with that foreign target.
“If they make a call to inside the United States, that can be collected,” he explained, “but it’s only because the target of that call outside the United States initiated that call and went there.”
Calls that take place wholly within the United States cannot be collected, and “if you’re targeting a person who is outside of the United States and you find that they come into the United States, we have to stop the targeting right away,” he said.
During an appearance on the Charlie Rose show on Tuesday night, President Barack Obama also took the issue head on, telling the host that “what I can say unequivocally is that if you are a US person, the NSA cannot listen to your telephone calls, and the NSA cannot target your emails … and have not.”
He called it “a false choice” that American citizens might have to choose between security and freedom, but “that doesn’t mean that there are not tradeoffs involved in any given program, in any given action that we take,” he warned.
In his testimony, Alexander complained that Snowden’s leaks and the media firestorm they have spawned has meant that “the debate has been fueled by incomplete and inaccurate information,” and that the surveillance programs in question have all been “approved by the president, the Congress and the courts.”
“These are egregious leaks,” Joyce added, since the intelligence community is now being forced to divulge which plots it has disrupted and how they’ve been disrupted.
Alexander was asked how Snowden, a relatively low-level contracted systems administrator who brought the programs into the light of day, was able to first obtain, and then spirit out this information.
“There is on the order of a thousand system administrators, people who actually run the networks, that have in certain sections, that level of authority and ability to interface with the system,” he said, the majority of whom are contractors.
Other than the Somalia financier plot, Joyce said that in fall 2009, the NSA intercepted emails that led to the disruption of the plot by Najibullah Zazi to bomb the New York City subway system.
The NSA also passed intelligence along to the FBI that an extremist in Yemen was in contact with an individual in the United States, Khalid Ouazzani, in a plot to bomb the New York Stock Exchange. Left out of Joyce’s testimony however, was the fact that Ouazzani was never actually convicted for trying to bomb the stock exchange. He would eventually be convicted of sending money to al-Qaida.
He also talked about the case of David Headley in Chicago, who was involved in helping to plan the bloody 2008 Mumbai attacks. The NSA again gave the FBI information that “Headley was working on a plot to bomb a Danish newspaper office that had published the cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad,” after which he was tracked, then arrested.