WASHINGTON – The director of the National Security Agency testified Tuesday that the government’s massive surveillance program helped thwart more than 50 terrorist “events” worldwide since Sept. 11, 2001, including a planned bombing of the New York Stock Exchange.
Army Gen. Keith Alexander, the NSA’s director, made the revelation during a rare open session of the House of Representatives’ Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, called by panel members to defend and explain government cybersnooping they support and which they contend has been misunderstood since it was revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Alexander, along with representatives of the FBI, the Office of National Intelligence and the Justice Department, tried to quell public angst over the size and scope of the government’s telephone and Internet surveillance activities following reports in Britain’s Guardian newspaper and the Washington Post based on Snowden’s leaks.
“This is not a program that’s off the books, that’s been hidden away,” Deputy Attorney General James Cole told lawmakers. “It’s been overseen by three branches of our government: the legislature, the judiciary and the executive branch.”
Alexander told the committee that the programs were instrumental in preventing about 50 terrorist “events” in more than 20 countries. At least “10 of these events included homeland-based threats,” he added.
The NSA director said he would provide House and Senate lawmakers detailed information on the 50 events in a classified setting. However, Sean Joyce, deputy director of the FBI, divulged some recently declassified information about two foiled domestic plots.
Without going into great detail, Joyce said authorities were able to stop a plot to bomb the New York Stock Exchange before it fully hatched because federal authorities, through the surveillance programs, were monitoring “an extremist in Yemen” who was “talking with an individual located in the United States in Kansas City, Missouri.”
The individual was later identified as Khalid Ouazzani. The Kansas City Star reported in June that Ouazzani, a local businessman, was part of a small terror cell with two New York men. In May 2010 he pleaded guilty to providing material support to a terrorist organization. He admitted sending more than $23,000 to al-Qaida, the Star reported.
When Ouazzani was first identified, Joyce told the intelligence committee members Tuesday, “We went up on electronic surveillance and identified his co-conspirators.
“And this was the plot that was in the very initial stages of plotting to bomb the New York Stock Exchange,” he said. “We were able to disrupt the plot, we were able to lure some individuals to the United States, and we were able to effect their arrest. And they were convicted for this terrorist activity.”
In the second newly declassified plot, Joyce said federal authorities were able to identify a San Diego man who intended to financially support a terrorism group in Somalia.
Joyce said the FBI investigated the man shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks but didn’t find any connection to terrorist activity.
“Several years later, the NSA provided us a telephone number only in San Diego that had indirect contact with an extremist outside the United States,” Joyce said.
With further electronic surveillance, approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Joyce said the FBI was able to identify the man’s co-conspirators “and we were able to disrupt this terrorist activity.”
Tuesday’s witnesses testified to a largely sympathetic committee. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., the committee chairman, described the unusual open hearing as a “cleanup on aisle nine” in the aftermath of Snowden’s leaks.
President Barack Obama also engaged in NSA damage control in a Monday night PBS interview with Charlie Rose. “What I can say unequivocally is that if you are a U.S. person, the NSA cannot listen to your phone calls, and the NSA cannot target your emails. And have not,” he told Rose.