NSA chief cites 50 foiled plots in defense of spying programs

Domestic intelligence programs run by the National Security Agency (NSA) have “disrupted” more than 50 potential terrorist attacks against the United States and its allies, NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander told Congress on Tuesday.

The plots included a previously undisclosed plan to blow up the New York Stock Exchange, Alexander said.

Testifying before the House Intelligence Committee, the four-star general told members that agency officials planned to have an unclassified summary of the foiled terror plots to Congress by Wednesday.

“We can’t lose these [intelligence] tools,” the NSA chief told House Intelligence panel members.

The 50-plus foiled plots disclosed Tuesday far exceed the dozen or so planned attacks that Alexander last week told the Senate Appropriations Committee had been thwarted thanks to the domestic intelligence programs.

Alexander’s testimony on Tuesday falls in line with the White House’s aggressive justification of the agency’s domestic intelligence programs.

In an interview with PBS’s Charlie Rose on Monday, President Obama doubled down on his defense of the NSA efforts that have damaged his approval ratings and distracted his presidency.

“Some people say ‘Well, you know, Obama was this raving liberal before. Now he’s, you know, Dick Cheney,’ ” Obama said. “Dick Cheney sometimes says, ‘Yeah, you know? He took it all lock, stock, and barrel.’

“My concern has always been not that we shouldn’t do intelligence gathering to prevent terrorism but rather, are we setting up a system of checks and balances?” Obama said.

The interview underscored the defensive posture the White House has adopted in recent weeks, arguing the NSA spying is “transparent” and has kept Americans safe from terror attacks.

“At the end of the day, the sheer value of the [NSA] programs is saving American lives,” House Intelligence Committee chief Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) told reporters after Tuesday’s hearing.  

“The people who are skeptical of the program have no clear understanding of what the program [does],” Rogers added.

During Tuesday’s hearing, Alexander and officials from the FBI and Office of the Director of National Intelligence continued with that narrative, unveiling details of a 2010 plot to blow up the New York Stock Exchange.

Code-named “Operation Wi-Fi,” NSA and FBI analysts were able to track terror suspects in Yemen and inside the United States who were plotting the attack, FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce told the House panel.

It was the first time the counterterrorism program was discussed in public.

Using intelligence gathered under the NSA’s PRISM program, which monitors Internet traffic via major Internet companies, FBI investigators and NSA analysts were able to untangle the web of emails and communications among the conspirators in Yemen and the United States.

Eventually, FBI and U.S. intelligence agents were able to track down and arrest the plotters, including Khalid Ouazzani, a Moroccan native who had been living in Kansas City at the time of his arrest.

FBI counterterrorism investigators were also able to track a top terrorist financier in San Diego, who was supporting militant extremist groups in Somalia.

Federal investigators uncovered the San Diego-Somalia connection via intelligence gathered from the NSA’s program to track overseas cellphone calls made on phones running on the Verizon network.

The FBI’s counterterrorism case against the San Diego financier had gone cold for years, Joyce told House members. It was not until intelligence obtained through the NSA’s Verizon program that federal agents got the break they were looking for, he  added.

“When a terrorist calls overseas, who they are calling is critically important to saving lives,” Rogers said after the hearing.

The PRISM program led to the breakup of al Qaeda operative Najibullah Zazi’s plot to bomb New York’s subways in 2009, Alexander said during a Senate appropriations panel hearing last Wednesday.

The Verizon cellphone program also played a key role in the federal manhunt for Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the brothers accused of bombing the Boston Marathon in April.

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden disclosed details of both programs to the media earlier this month.

The disclosures created an uproar on Capitol Hill over the programs, with a number of lawmakers claiming the NSA and White House were trampling Americans’ civil liberties.

But Rogers slammed critics of the NSA programs, arguing their assumptions are based on a complete misunderstanding of the intelligence programs.

“If half of the things coming out on blogs and other places [about the programs] were true, I would not support these two particular programs,” Rogers said.

“We would love to find someone in the intelligence community who is skeptical of the program who knows what they are talking about,” he added.

Opponents of the programs simply “have no understanding of what the program is,” Rogers said, adding it was easy to have “lofty rhetoric of what they think the [NSA] program does.”

Those who understand the NSA programs know the agency’s efforts have saved American lives, he added.

“There is somebody getting up every day, in some part of the world ... trying to determine a way they can kill U.S. citizens in America,” Rogers said.

“If you can stop 10 [attacks] of that magnitude ... that’s huge,” he added. “Some are stopped overseas. Some are stopped here. I don’t really care where you stop it, if we stop them, that is an [advantage] I want in the tool kit.”

Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) also defended the phone surveillance.

“This is a program that works. It’s a program that does not listen to your conversation. It’s a program that is overseen by the courts. And our role in government is to protect the country from these terrorist attacks,” Ruppersberger told CNN.

“If you want to find a needle in a haystack, which is a lot of what our intelligence community does, you need the haystack.”