By Nick Simeone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 18, 2013 – The director of the National Security Agency told Congress today more than 50 terrorist plots worldwide have been prevented since the 9/11 attacks through the classified surveillance programs the government uses to gather phone and Internet data, programs he said are legal and do not compromise the privacy and civil liberties of Americans.
Army Gen. Keith B. Alexander, who also commands U.S. Cyber Command, told the House Intelligence Committee he plans as early as tomorrow to provide lawmakers with classified details about the plots that were foiled in an effort to show how valuable the programs are to national security.
Alexander and other senior U.S. officials were called to testify in response to unauthorized disclosures to the media by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who revealed details about the agency’s gathering of telephone numbers and the monitoring of Internet activity by foreigners overseas, leaks that Alexander said have caused irreversible and significant damage to the security of the United States and its allies.
Testifying alongside Alexander, Deputy FBI Director Sean Joyce discussed two terrorist plots that he said the surveillance programs helped to prevent. In one, emails intercepted from a terrorist in Pakistan helped to stop a plot to bomb New York City’s subway system. Another involved a failed attempt by a known extremist in Yemen who conspired with a suspect in the United States to target the New York Stock Exchange. Both cases led to arrests and convictions, Joyce said.
“These programs are immensely valuable for protecting our nation and the security of our allies,” Alexander said, and added that they may have helped to prevent the 9/11 attacks themselves if the government had the legal authority, as granted by the Patriot Act, to use them at the time.
The disclosure of the NSA programs has generated a nationwide debate over what techniques the government can legally use to monitor phone and Internet data to prevent terrorism without violating the privacy and civil liberties of Americans. Alexander and other senior U.S officials emphasized that the gathering of phone numbers that already are being collected by service providers as well as the tracking of U.S-based Internet servers used by foreigners are legal and repeatedly have been approved by the courts and Congress.
“These programs are limited, focused and subject to rigorous oversight,” and their disciplined operation “protects the privacy and civil liberties of the American people,” Alexander said.
The details of the foiled terror plots that he plans to provide to Congress will remove any doubt about the usefulness of the surveillance in keeping the homeland safe, the NSA director told the House panel.
“In the 12 years since the attacks on Sept. 11, we have lived in relative safety and security as a nation,” he said. “That security is a direct result of the intelligence community’s quiet efforts to better connect the dots and learn from the mistakes that permitted those attacks.”
To prevent another damaging leak such as the breach caused by Snowden’s disclosures, Alexander told lawmakers, the NSA is looking into where security may have broken down and for ways to provide greater oversight for the roughly 1,000 system administrators at NSA who have access to top secret information.