US officials: Surveillance programs helped stop 50 terrorist plots

The NSA surveillance programs are subject to rigorous oversight by courts and Congress, officials say

U.S. law enforcement agencies have disrupted more than 50 terrorist plots in the U.S. and other countries with the help of controversial surveillance efforts at the U.S. National Security Agency, government officials said Tuesday.

NSA surveillance programs recently exposed by NSA contractor Edward Snowden have played a key role in disrupting terrorist activity in more than 20 countries, including 10 terrorist plots in the U.S., since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S., NSA director General Keith Alexander told U.S. lawmakers.

"In the 12 years since the attacks on Sept. 11, we have lived in relative safety and security as a nation," Alexander told the U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee. "That security is a direct result of the intelligence community's quiet efforts to better connect the dots and learn from the mistakes that permitted those attacks to occur on 9/11."

Officials with the NSA and the U.S. Department of Justice defended the surveillance programs during Tuesday's hearing, saying the programs are subject of rigorous oversight by the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and Congress. Officials contradicted allegations by Snowden, who has said the few controls at the NSA are easily circumvented by NSA analysts.

The NSA must file multiple reports on its surveillance to Congress and to the surveillance court, and the DOJ audits the programs for compliance with the law, officials said. Contrary to allegations by Snowden, the NSA is prohibited by law to listen to phone calls or read emails of U.S. residents or U.S. citizens living abroad, officials said. The agency does refer information about terrorist plots involving U.S. residents to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Alexander said.

The NSA and FBI do not have databases containing U.S. residents' phone calls, email messages, text messages, video surveillance or GPS tracking, officials told the committee. The agencies do not data mine the information they collect, officials said.

The FISA Amendments Act, one of two laws allowing NSA surveillance, "cannot be and is not used to intentionally target any U.S. citizen or any U.S. person," said Chris Inglis, deputy director at the NSA.

The surveillance court is not a "rubber stamp" for the NSA as some critics have suggested, officials added. While the FISA court ultimately approves nearly all surveillance requests, FISA judge staffers often push back on surveillance requests and require changes, said Robert Litt, general counsel in the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

NSA surveillance authorized by Congress through the Patriot Act and the FISA Amendments Act helped disrupt plots to attack the New York Stock Exchange and the New York subway system, as well as a plot to bomb a Danish newspaper that published a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad, officials said. Intelligence officials said they will detail classified information about other thwarted attacks lawmakers soon, they said.

While the NSA is collecting phone business records, it can only query those records within specific rules set up in advance by the surveillance court, officials said. The NSA must then report those queries to the court, they said.

In 2012, the NSA ran queries on less than 300 phone numbers in a database of telephone business records, Inglis said.

While officials disputed much of the allegations Snowden made, the former contractor's disclosure of the surveillance programs could have a "long and irreversible impact on our nation's security and that of our allies," Alexander said. "The foreign intelligence programs that we're talking about are the best counterterrorism tools we have to go after these guys. We can't lose those capabilities."

Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican, asked the officials about allegations made by Snowden.

"Is the NSA on private companies' servers?" Rogers asked.

"We are not," Alexander said.

"Does the technology exist at the NSA to flip a switch by some analyst to listen to Americans' phone calls or read their emails?" Rogers asked.

"No," Alexander said.

Still, some lawmakers said they are uncomfortable that the NSA is collecting massive amounts of phone records from U.S. carriers. The FISA court's approval for the NSA and FBI to collect huge numbers of phone records from Verizon Communications is troubling and "unprecedented," said Representative Jim Himes, a Connecticut Democrat.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

Join the Good Gear Guide newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags U.S. Federal Bureau of InvestigationU.S. Department of JusticetelecommunicationKeith AlexanderU.S. National Security AgencyJim HimesinternetChris InglisprivacyU.S. House of Representatives Intelligence CommitteesecurityEdward SnowdenNew York Stock ExchangegovernmentMike RogersVerizon Communications

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Grant Gross

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Essentials

Lexar® JumpDrive® S57 USB 3.0 flash drive

Learn more >

Microsoft L5V-00027 Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard Desktop

Learn more >

Mobile

Lexar® JumpDrive® S45 USB 3.0 flash drive 

Learn more >

Exec

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC70 Noise Cancelling Headphones

Learn more >

HD Pan/Tilt Wi-Fi Camera with Night Vision NC450

Learn more >

Lexar® JumpDrive® C20c USB Type-C flash drive 

Learn more >

Lexar® Professional 1800x microSDHC™/microSDXC™ UHS-II cards 

Learn more >

Budget

Back To Business Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Azadeh Williams

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

A smarter way to print for busy small business owners, combining speedy printing with scanning and copying, making it easier to produce high quality documents and images at a touch of a button.

Andrew Grant

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

I've had a multifunction printer in the office going on 10 years now. It was a neat bit of kit back in the day -- print, copy, scan, fax -- when printing over WiFi felt a bit like magic. It’s seen better days though and an upgrade’s well overdue. This HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 looks like it ticks all the same boxes: print, copy, scan, and fax. (Really? Does anyone fax anything any more? I guess it's good to know the facility’s there, just in case.) Printing over WiFi is more-or- less standard these days.

Ed Dawson

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

As a freelance writer who is always on the go, I like my technology to be both efficient and effective so I can do my job well. The HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 Inkjet Printer ticks all the boxes in terms of form factor, performance and user interface.

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Aysha Strobbe

Windows 10 / HP Spectre x360

Ultimately, I think the Windows 10 environment is excellent for me as it caters for so many different uses. The inclusion of the Xbox app is also great for when you need some downtime too!

Mark Escubio

Windows 10 / Lenovo Yoga 910

For me, the Xbox Play Anywhere is a great new feature as it allows you to play your current Xbox games with higher resolutions and better graphics without forking out extra cash for another copy. Although available titles are still scarce, but I’m sure it will grow in time.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?