US surveillance foiled numerous attacks
19 June 2013, 08:37
Washington - The director of the National Security Agency
(NSA) said on Tuesday the government's sweeping US surveillance programmes have
foiled some 50 terrorist plots worldwide, including one directed at the New
York Stock Exchange, in a forceful defence of spy operations that was echoed by
the leaders of the House Intelligence Committee.
Army General Keith Alexander said the two recently
disclosed programmes - one that gathers US phone records and another that is
designed to track the use of US-based internet servers by foreigners with
possible links to terrorism - are critical in the terrorism fight.
Intelligence officials have disclosed some details on two
thwarted attacks, and Alexander offered some information on other attempts.
He said the NSA was monitoring a known extremist in Yemen
who was in contact with an individual in the United States.
Identifying that person and other individuals, Alexander
said, officials "were able to detect a nascent plot to bomb the New York
Stock Exchange... The FBI disrupted and arrested these individuals."
The programmes "assist the intelligence community to
connect the dots," Alexander told the committee in a rare, open
congressional Hill hearing.
Alexander got no disagreement from the leaders of the
panel, who have been outspoken in backing the programmes since Edward Snowden,
a 29-year-old former contractor with Booz Allen Hamilton, disclosed information
to The Washington Post and the Guardian newspapers.
Representative Mike Rogers, the Republican chairperson of
the committee, and Representative C A Dutch Ruppersberger, the panel's top
Democrat, said the programmes 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 US and its allies at risk.
The general counsel for the intelligence community said
the NSA cannot target phone conversations between callers inside the US - even
if one of those callers was someone targeted for surveillance when outside the
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 travelled into the US 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
The hearing came the morning after President Barack
Obama, who attended G-8 summit in Ireland, vigorously defended the surveillance
programmes in a lengthy interview on Monday, calling them transparent - even
though they are authorised in secret.
"It is transparent," Obama told PBS
television's 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 (Fisa) that authorises two recently disclosed
programmes: one that gathers US phone records and another that is designed to
track the use of US-based internet servers by foreigners with possible links to
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 e-mails 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 programmes could be made public, to help better
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the
official was not authorised to speak publicly.
Snowden on Monday accused members of Congress and administration
officials of exaggerating their claims about the success of the data gathering
programmes, 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 programmes," he said.
Obama repeated earlier assertions that the NSA programmes
were a legitimate counter-terror tool and that they were completely non-invasive
to people with no terror ties - something he hoped to discuss with the privacy
and civil liberties board he'd formed.
The senior administration official said the president
would be meeting with the new privacy board in the coming days.
Join in the conversation on our Facebook page.
Also get the latest news by following us on Twitter.