WASHINGTON – The U.S. government’s sweeping surveillance programs have disrupted more than 50 terrorist plots in the United States and abroad, including a plan to bomb the New York Stock Exchange, senior Obama administration officials testified Tuesday.
The officials, appearing before a largely friendly House committee, defended the collection of telephone and Internet data by the National Security Agency as central to protecting the United States and its allies against terrorist attacks. And they said that recent disclosures about the surveillance operations have caused serious damage.
“We are now faced with a situation that, because this information has been made public, we run the risk of losing these collection capabilities,” said Robert Litt, general counsel of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. “We’re not going to know for many months whether these leaks in fact have caused us to lose these capabilities, but if they do have that effect, there is no doubt that they will cause our national security to be affected.”
The hearing before the House Intelligence Committee was the third congressional session examining the leaks of classified material about two top-secret surveillance programs by whistle-blower Edward Snowden, 29, a former NSA contractor and onetime CIA employee.
Articles based on the material in The Washington Post and The Guardian newspaper have raised concerns about intrusions on civil liberties and forced President Barack Obama’s administration to mount an aggressive defense of the effectiveness and privacy protections of the operations.
Gen. Keith Alexander, head of the NSA, told the committee that the programs had helped prevent “potential terrorist events over 50 times since 9/11.” He said at least 10 of the disrupted plots involved terrorism suspects or targets in the United States.
Alexander said officials do not plan to release additional information publicly, so as not to reveal sources of methods of operation. But he said the House and Senate intelligence committees will receive classified details of the thwarted plots.
In testimony last week, Alexander said the surveillance programs had helped prevent an attack on the New York City subway system and the bombing of a Danish newspaper. Sean Joyce, deputy director of the FBI, described two additional plots Tuesday that he said were stopped through the surveillance — a plan by a Kansas City, Missouri, man to bomb the New York Stock Exchange and efforts by a San Diego man to send money to terrorists in Somalia.
The officials said repeatedly that the operations were authorized by Congress and subject to oversight through internal mechanisms and the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
Alexander said that more than 90 percent of the information on the foiled plots came from a program targeting the communications of foreigners, known as PRISM. The program was authorized under a 2008 law that amended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.