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June 18, 2013 7:44 pm
The head of the National Security Agency said on Tuesday that controversial US surveillance programmes have helped foil more than 50 terrorist plots and might have allowed the US authorities to prevent the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
In an aggressive defence against the heavy criticism his agency has come under in recent days, General Keith Alexander said that the surveillance activities, which had helped prevent a plan to blow up the New York Stock Exchange, were the subject of “rigorous oversight” by the courts, Congress and the executive branch.
“The events of September 11, 2001 occurred, in part, because of a failure to connect the dots”, said Gen Alexander. “I would rather be here explaining these programmes than explaining why it is we failed to prevent another 9/11.”
Gen Alexander and four other senior administration officials were speaking at a hastily arranged congressional hearing to discuss the surveillance programmes after a series of high-profile leaks about the NSA’s activities.
In particular, documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed a programme to pre-collect the telephone records of millions of Americans and appeared to point to wide powers to read the emails and other online communications of foreigners, which officials deny.
Gen Alexander said there were more than 50 cases when the two programmes had helped prevent terrorist incidents, 10 of them attacks on the US. In around half of those cases, the information from the surveillance programmes had been “critical”.
Sean Joyce, deputy director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, described to the hearing details of two of those cases which had not yet been made public. In one instance, agents used data from phone records to identify a man in Kansas City who was talking to extremists in Yemen and who was ultimately arrested in connection with an alleged plot to attack the NYSE.
In another case, a phone number provided by the NSA for an individual who had been in indirect contact with an alleged terrorist outside the US allowed the government to start an investigation which led to his arrest for providing financial support to an organisation designated by the US as a terrorist group. Other foiled plots included a plan to bomb the New York subway and to attack the office of a Danish newspaper.
“These would have been significant events in the life of our country,” Gen Alexander said of the two New York plots.
Citing a previous Supreme Court ruling, James Cole, deputy attorney-general, told the hearing that telephone records – as opposed to the content of telephone calls – were not covered by the Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizure because American citizens “do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in who they call and when they call”. Such information was shared with telephone companies, he said.
While members of the House intelligence committee were generally supportive of the surveillance programmes, some questioned why there was so much secrecy about the NSA’s activities. “This is a hearing we could have held two years ago,” said Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat.
In an interview to be broadcast on Monday evening, President Barack Obama said that the intelligence community would make more information available about how the surveillance worked. “If people are making judgments just based on these slides that have been leaked, they’re not getting the complete story,” he said.
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