The head of the National Security Agency (NSA) on Tuesday admitted that government surveillance programs contributed to but were not fully responsible for preventing terrorist plots.
Since their revelation, the programs — which involve the collection of metadata of every phone call in the United States and monitoring Internet content of foreign nationals outside of the U.S. — have sparked a massive debate over the scope of the programs, their initial secrecy, the manner in which they were revealed, and particularly whether they’re the most effective way to discover potential terrorist attacks before they occur.
To counter these critiques, NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander told the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that more than 50 potential terrorist plots were foiled, of which “just over ten” were within the United States, through the use of the controversial data-gathering projects. While promising to bring forward documents detailing those plots to the committee in a later classified hearing, Alexander and his colleagues gave new details about four plots they say were halted through the surveillance. These include a previously disclosed plot to conduct an attack on the New York City subway system and a newly revealed plan to bomb the New York Stock Exchange.
The officials’ testimony gave the clearest picture yet how the NSA’s surveillence operates, but not all of the committee members were willing to accept vague guarantees that the metadata collection was vital in halting these plots. “I don’t think its adequate to say that 702 and 215 authorities ‘contributed to’ our preventing fifty episodes,” Rep. Jim Himes (D-CT) told Alexander, referring to the sections of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and PATRIOT Act that greenlight the NSA programs under scrutiny. “I think it’s really essential that you grade the importance of that contribution,” he went on, before directly asking how many of the fifty plots would not have been stopped were it not for the NSA’s surveillance.
In response, Gen. Alexander clarified that only the slightly more than ten plots that had a “domestic nexus” would have been able to be targeted using the metadata program Hines asked about. Of the other plots, the ability to view Internet content under the FISA’s ‘contributed’ to 90 percent of the cases, according to Alexander, without providing the grade Himes requested. The general was also unable to pin down just how critical the NSA’s ability to gain access to business records under the PATRIOT Act, such as the metadata gathering from Verizon that set off the whole scandal, to preventing those attacks. “If we now look at those [domestic cases], the vast majority of those had a contribution by business records FISA,” Alexander said.
Himes tried to press further for a clear answer on which plots the data gather was essential to stopping, but was rebuffed by Deputy FBI Director Sean Joyce. “I would just add to Gen. Alexander’s comments and I think you ask an almost impossible question, to say how important each dot was,” Joyce said, claiming that every tool covered during the hearing is essential and vital. “You ask ‘How can you put the value on American life?’ and I can tell you it’s priceless,” Joyce concluded.
An earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to Rep. Jim Himes as Jim “Hines,” which has since been corrected.