Classified National Security Agency programs have prevented dozens of terrorist plots, the agency’s director told a Senate panel Wednesday.
Testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee, NSA chief Keith Alexander cited Najibullah Zazi’s plot to bomb New York’s subways in 2009 as one of many foiled attacks on the nation.
Two previously unknown NSA programs were revealed last week in leaks by 29-year-old defense contractor Edward Snowden.
Wednesday’s Appropriations Committee hearing was
Alexander’s first public appearance since the programs became public.
The NSA director said intelligence officials caught wind of the New York subway plot thanks to the PRISM program, which pulls data from tech companies on foreign Internet users.
PRISM “was the one that allowed us to know it was happening,” Alexander said.
The second program, which allows the NSA to sweep all cellphones on the Verizon network, played a key role in the federal manhunt for Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the brothers accused of bombing the Boston Marathon.
Alexander’s claims are in sharp contrast with Sen. Mark Udall’s (D-Colo.) remarks last week. Udall, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said there is no proof that the NSA’s collection of phone records has helped thwart any terror plots.
Alexander and U.S. intelligence officials are in the midst of compiling details of all the terror plots foiled by both programs, and they plan to send that report to Congress.
“What we need to do is bring as many facts out as possible to the American people … to have this very public debate,” Alexander added.
The successes cited by Alexander were not enough to deflect lawmakers’ criticisms of the NSA’s surveillance of American citizens.
Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) said the secretive nature of the NSA programs, even with members of Congress, was a clear sign of distrust by the U.S. intelligence community.
“The intelligence community has told us that we obviously don’t have the ability as simple senators to know anything as well as you do,” Leahy said.
During the Senate Appropriations Committee hearing, Leahy pressed Alexander to provide examples of intelligence gathered, under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, that had been central to disrupting a terror attack.
Section 215 provided the authority for the NSA to compel telecom company Verizon to turn over rolling logs of phone data for its U.S. subscribers.
Leahy said the intelligence community had sent unacceptable signals that “Congress should not tinker” with the details of the agency’s efforts and the legal justifications under the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
“I don’t think that’s wise,” he said. “We should look at [the FISA provisions] periodically, and we should actually debate them in a free and open society.”
The Vermont Democrat said he will push for adding expiration dates to the FISA language authorizing the NSA programs.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) grilled Alexander on why the agency needed to cull reams of cellphone data in the hopes of picking out a single suspect.
“It certainly defies logic” to collect all calls from an entire area code or state in the hopes of targeting a terror suspect, Durbin said. “That, to me, seems overly broad.”
In the most heated exchange of Wednesday’s hearing, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) demanded Alexander explain why the agency was legally authorized to obtain his cellphone data.
Waving his Verizon cell phone from his seat, Merkley asked Alexander to explain “what authorized investigation gave you the grounds” to acquire his cellphone data.
Alexander sidestepped the question. He said the Department of Justice was responsible for outlining the legal authorities under which the agency could request such data.
But Alexander also said he would make an effort to provide that explanation to the committee.
“I will work hard to do that, and if I can’t do that, I will come back to you and tell you why,” he said.
Merkley and fellow Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden are spearheading legislation to declassify legal opinions of the secret intelligence court created under FISA.
Rank-and-file House Republicans are also demanding a classified executive session with their leaders to flesh out details of investigations into the NSA leak.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and other Republican leaders have offered a defense of the two NSA programs, arguing they were legal and that Congress had oversight on them.
Despite the criticism from Leahy, Merkley and other senators, Alexander did have supporters on the Appropriations panel.
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) voiced the strongest support for the NSA chief and the agency’s efforts.
“We are not in a scrimmage. We are in a war ... and we are way behind the 8-ball” in terms of possible threats facing the United States, she said, adding the agency’s efforts were invaluable in keeping those threats at bay.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, also expressed her support for the NSA programs. However, Feinstein noted that Alexander’s forthcoming report on thwarted terror plots would be “very important” to explaining the programs to the American people.
Alexander said that it was his “intent” to release more specific numbers to both Congress and the American people within the next week.
“I am pushing for that, and perhaps faster, if I don’t get any kicks from [aides] behind me,” Alexander said. “I want the American people to know we’re being transparent here.”
But the four-star general said he and the U.S. intelligence community were walking a fine line between transparency and protecting the nation.
“Great harm has already been done by opening these [programs] up,” Alexander said, adding the U.S. and its allies are less safe now than they were before Snowden’s revelations.
Clandestine surveillance programs will remain a fact of life for the NSA and the intelligence community, he said.
If the U.S. intelligence community completely abandoned its classified operations, U.S. adversaries “will get through and Americans will die,” he said.
— Updated at 8:27 p.m.