CAPITOL HILL — Top National Security Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation officials say newly revealed surveillance programs have helped to stop more than 50 terrorist attacks in 20 countries around the world. The officials delivered a strong defense of the exposed surveillance programs to the House Select Committee on Intelligence, saying they are essential to national security and have not violated any laws or Americans' privacy rights.
FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce outlined four terrorist plots that he said were foiled with the help of the top secret surveillance programs. Joyce said the NSA discovered one of the plots while monitoring a known extremist in Yemen who was in contact with an operative in Kansas City, Missouri.
"We found through electronic surveillance that they were actually in the initial stages of plotting to bomb the New York Stock Exchange,"Joyce said.
Joyce said those involved in the plot were arrested and later convicted. Joyce also said an NSA intercept of an e-mail from a terrorist in Pakistan in 2009 led authorities to Najibullah Zazi, who later pleaded guilty to a plot to bomb New York City's subway system.
Joyce said the program also linked an American citizen, David Headley, in Chicago to the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai, India and to a plot to bomb the offices of a Danish newspaper that published a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad. Joyce said the FBI would release details of more than 50 thwarted plots to the House and Senate intelligence committees in a classified setting, but not in an open hearing because of security concerns.
NSA chief Keith Alexander told the congressional panel U.S. intelligence officials were criticized after the September 11, 2001 attacks for "not connecting the dots" on pieces of information, and he said the surveillance programs are providing those dots. Alexander sought to answer concerns about privacy, saying the surveillance programs are limited and properly supervised throughout the process.
"Let me start by saying that I would much rather be here today debating this point than trying to explain how we failed to prevent another 9/11," Alexander said.
The intelligence officials stressed that no phone calls can be monitored without a court order. But some lawmakers expressed concern about the collection of ordinary Americans' phone records. Democratic Congressman James Himes said the recent disclosures by NSA contractor Edward Snowden still trouble him.
"They trouble me because of the breadth and the scope of the information collection. They trouble me because I think this is historically unprecedented in the extent of the data that is being collected on potentially all American citizens," Himes said.
Another congressman, Democrat Adam Schiff, suggested that perhaps changes could be made to the Patriot Act provisions, so that telecommunications companies could collect and store Americans' phone records instead of the government, and the government could ask for access to a specific individual's records only when there are substantial suspicions of a terrorist connection.