U.S. law enforcement agencies have disrupted more than 50 terrorist plots in the U.S. and other countries with the help of controversial surveillance efforts at the U.S. National Security Agency, government officials said Tuesday.
NSA surveillance programs recently exposed by NSA contractor Edward Snowden have played a key role in disrupting terrorist activity in more than 20 countries, including 10 terrorist plots in the U.S., since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S., NSA director General Keith Alexander told U.S. lawmakers.
"In the 12 years since the attacks on Sept. 11, we have lived in relative safety and security as a nation," Alexander told the U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee. "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 occur on 9/11."
Officials with the NSA and the U.S. Department of Justice defended the surveillance programs during Tuesday's hearing, saying the programs are subject of rigorous oversight by the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and Congress. Officials contradicted allegations by Snowden, who has said the few controls at the NSA are easily circumvented by NSA analysts.
The NSA must file multiple reports on its surveillance to Congress and to the surveillance court, and the DOJ audits the programs for compliance with the law, officials said. Contrary to allegations by Snowden, the NSA is prohibited by law to listen to phone calls or read emails of U.S. residents or U.S. citizens living abroad, officials said. The agency does refer information about terrorist plots involving U.S. residents to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Alexander said.
The NSA and FBI do not have databases containing U.S. residents' phone calls, email messages, text messages, video surveillance or GPS tracking, officials told the committee. The agencies do not data mine the information they collect, officials said.
The FISA Amendments Act, one of two laws allowing NSA surveillance, "cannot be and is not used to intentionally target any U.S. citizen or any U.S. person," said Chris Inglis, deputy director at the NSA.
The surveillance court is not a "rubber stamp" for the NSA as some critics have suggested, officials added. While the FISA court ultimately approves nearly all surveillance requests, FISA judge staffers often push back on surveillance requests and require changes, said Robert Litt, general counsel in the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
NSA surveillance authorized by Congress through the Patriot Act and the FISA Amendments Act helped disrupt plots to attack the New York Stock Exchange and the New York subway system, as well as a plot to bomb a Danish newspaper that published a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad, officials said. Intelligence officials said they will detail classified information about other thwarted attacks lawmakers soon, they said.
While the NSA is collecting phone business records, it can only query those records within specific rules set up in advance by the surveillance court, officials said. The NSA must then report those queries to the court, they said.
In 2012, the NSA ran queries on less than 300 phone numbers in a database of telephone business records, Inglis said.
While officials disputed much of the allegations Snowden made, the former contractor's disclosure of the surveillance programs could have a "long and irreversible impact on our nation's security and that of our allies," Alexander said. "The foreign intelligence programs that we're talking about are the best counterterrorism tools we have to go after these guys. We can't lose those capabilities."
Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican, asked the officials about allegations made by Snowden.
"Is the NSA on private companies' servers?" Rogers asked.
"We are not," Alexander said.
"Does the technology exist at the NSA to flip a switch by some analyst to listen to Americans' phone calls or read their emails?" Rogers asked.
"No," Alexander said.
Still, some lawmakers said they are uncomfortable that the NSA is collecting massive amounts of phone records from U.S. carriers. The FISA court's approval for the NSA and FBI to collect huge numbers of phone records from Verizon Communications is troubling and "unprecedented," said Representative Jim Himes, a Connecticut Democrat.
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is [email protected]