Intelligence and law enforcement agencies sought to fulfill their pledges of more transparency for classified U.S. surveillance initiatives, telling Congress the programs helped thwart more than 50 terrorist plots.
Among the foiled conspiracies was a planned attack on the New York Stock Exchange, Deputy FBI Director Sean Joyce told a House committee yesterday. Surveillance of communications between a known al-Qaeda extremist in Yemen and an individual in the U.S. allowed the FBI to “detect a nascent plot” to bomb the exchange and arrest those involved, he said.
“The tools as I outlined to you and their uses today have been valuable to stopping some of those plots,” Joyce said at a House Intelligence Committee hearing on U.S. collection of data on telephone calls and Internet communications.
Government surveillance activities are under scrutiny after former National Security Agency contract worker Edward Snowden exposed the previously secret programs. The revelations have reignited a political debate that has repeatedly flared since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S. about the balance between civil liberties and protection from terrorism.
U.S. lawmakers and civil-liberties groups have sought more information on the programs, including whether the initiatives have helped halt terrorist activities on U.S. soil. President Barack Obama said in an interview with Charlie Rose aired on June 17 that the intelligence community, at his instruction, is determining “how much of this we can declassify without further compromising the program.”
Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican and chairman of the intelligence panel, said policy makers “have to be careful to balance the need for secrecy while educating the public” about surveillance efforts.
Rogers said Snowden’s leak of information on the electronic monitoring to the Washington Post and U.K.-based Guardian newspapers “paints an inaccurate picture and fosters distrust in our government.”
Army General Keith Alexander, director of the NSA, credited surveillance operations with halting terror plots in more than 20 countries. He said the agency would provide the House and Senate intelligence panels with documents detailing more than 50 “potential terrorist events” in a classified setting today.
Asked if it was a serious plot, Joyce said, “I think the jury considered it serious since they were all convicted.” He was referring to other individuals that he said law enforcement officials were able to “lure” to the U.S. and arrest.
“These programs that we’re talking about here today, they’re all valuable pieces to bring that mosaic together and figure out how these individuals are plotting to attack the United States here,” Joyce said.
Ouazzani’s lawyer, Robin Fowler of the Bath & Edmonds law firm in Overland, Kansas, disputed Joyce’s statements. Ouazzani “was not involved in any plot to bomb the New York Stock Exchange,” Fowler said in a phone interview.
Joyce also provided new details about how the surveillance programs helped stop a plot by Najibullah Zazi to bomb New York City subways in 2009.
The government intercepted an e-mail from a suspected terrorist in Pakistan to identify and find Zazi, Joyce said, and used phone records to help identify one of Zazi’s co-conspirators, Adis Medunjanin. Zazi pleaded guilty to participating in the plot while Medunjanin was convicted of crimes in federal court.
Monitoring of foreigners’ Internet activity also helped in the discovery of a plan to bomb the office of a Danish newspaper that published cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, Joyce said. That plot involved David Headley, a Pakistani-American who was arrested in 2009 for helping coordinate the 2008 shooting and bombing attacks in Mumbai that killed 166 people.
Headley was convicted in January in a U.S. federal court for his role in the attacks.
The Obama administration has confirmed the existence of a program compelling Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ) to provide the NSA with customers’ telephone records. It also has confirmed the existence of a separate program, called Prism, that monitors the Internet activity of foreigners believed to be located outside the U.S. and plotting terrorist attacks.
Administration officials have defended the surveillance programs as legal and conducted under the supervision of a federal court and members of Congress.
John Chris Inglis, NSA deputy director, said at yesterday’s hearing that the agency approved inquiries on fewer than 300 phone numbers in 2012.
“It’s a phone book without any names and addresses in it,” Rogers told reporters after the hearing. “This is used very sparingly.”
Representative Jim Himes, a Connecticut Democrat and member of the intelligence panel, said he was troubled by the “breadth and the scope” of phone records collected by the NSA.
“I think this is historically unprecedented in the extent of the data that is being collected on potentially all American citizens,” Himes said. “We know that when a capability exists, there’s a potential for abuse.”
He said he wanted more details proving that using phone records has been essential to disrupting terrorist plots.
Snowden, a technology contractor working for Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp. (BAH), fled to Hong Kong last month before revealing himself as the source, and U.S. lawmakers said they want to know more about what led him to act.
“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 Representative C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger of Maryland, the intelligence committee’s top Democrat.
Alexander said the very documents exposed by Snowden show the “rigorous oversight and compliance” used to balance national security with individual liberties and privacy.
“I would much rather be here today debating this point than trying to explain how we failed to prevent another 9/11,” he said.