The National Security Agency’s controversial surveillance programs—leaked earlier this month by an ex-CIA employee—has helped stopped more than 50 “potential terrorist events” since the Sept. 11 attacks, according to government officials.
Deputy director of the FBI, Sean Joyce, testified before the House Intelligence committee on the value of the programs on Tuesday. He mentioned four specific plots, including one to bomb the New York Stock Exchange and another case involving an individual providing financial resources to a terrorist group abroad. Details of the plots were far and few in between, but Joyce said:
1. The NSA used Internet surveillance to find an extremist in Yemen who had been in contact with Khalid Ouazzani, an individual who was living in Kansas City. Authorities were able to detect “nascent plotting” to bomb the New York Stock Exchange.
2. The programs also helped stop the New York City subway plot in 2009. The NSA intercepted an email from a terrorist who was talking with someone in the United States about making explosives. That person turned out to be Najibullah Zazi, an Afghani-American who eventually pled guilty to planning suicide bombings on the subways.
3. The NSA programs, according to Joyce, helped identify David Headley, a Pakistani-American living in Chicago. He had been plotting to attack a Danish newspaper office that published cartoons of the Islamic Prophet Mohammad.
4. Joyce described how the FBI had opened an investigation shortly after 9/11. However, there was not enough information or any found links to terrorism so the investigation as closed. “However, the NSA using the business record FISA tipped us off that this individual had indirect contact with a known terrorist overseas. We were able to reopen this investigation, identify additional individuals through the legal process and were able to disrupt this terrorist activity.” Joyce said. The individual was providing financial support to an overseas terrorist group.
The government has already been credited with stopping the cases with Zazi and Headley, though the other two programs are new to the public. NSA director Keith Alexander said the full list of thwarted plots will be provided to the committee on Wednesday.
Alexander said the two programs—one that allows the government to obtain millions of Americans’ phone records and another that permits the gathering of foreigners online activities abroad via nine leading Internet companies—were perfectly legal and an important tool in stopping terrorist attacks. President Obama has also defended the programs.
“I would much rather be here today debating this point than trying to explain how we failed to prevent another 9/11,” said Alexander during his second testimony on Capitol Hill in the last week.
The phone record grabbing and data mining programs leaked by Edward Snowden have provoked both fear and outrage from liberal advocates and conservative libertarians over the government’s seemingly aggressive snooping. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit this week challenging the constitutionality of the programs. The revelations also renewed the debate on privacy and security, and just how much Americans are willing to sacrifice one for the other .
The post-leak offer of additional information from one of the government’s most secretive organizations, however, seems to signal a White House effort to shore up the public’s confidence and trust.
During questioning, Joyce said the leaks were “egregious" and could hurt the country's security.
“We are revealing in front of you today methods and techniques” important in stopping terrorist plots. “…Here we are talking about this in front of the world,” said Joyce.