The National Security Agency last year checked fewer than 300 telephone numbers against its database containing details about every phone call made in America, intelligence officials said Tuesday.
The rare admission was part of the Obama administration's effort to reassure Americans about NSA data-gathering programs that officials said had foiled more than 50 terrorist plots in the United States and abroad.
"In recent years, the information gathered from these programs provided the U.S. government with critical leads to help prevent over 50 potential terrorist events in more than 20 countries around the world," including 10 in the U.S., Army Gen. Keith B. Alexander, the NSA's director, told lawmakers Tuesday.
The freshly declassified figures were announced at an unprecedented public hearing of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence about the two NSA programs exposed this month by self-proclaimed whistleblower Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor.
Gen. Alexander said investigators are working to uncover the full extent of the documents Mr. Snowden might have stolen from the agency before fleeing to Hong Kong.
He said that more than 1,000 computer systems administrators at the NSA have the kind of access to the agency's intranet that Mr. Snowden apparently exploited. Most of them, like Mr. Snowden, are contract employees.
Gen. Alexander said that, despite Mr. Snowden's claims otherwise, he would not have had access to the NSA's vast databases.
Deputy NSA Director Christopher Inglis said that one program exposed by Mr. Snowden, code-named Prism, collects email, text, video messages and other online communications from nine Internet companies, but it is used only to target foreigners believed to be outside the United States.
The other program, authorized under the USA Patriot Act, involves the collection of "metadata" from about every telephone call made or received in the United States, Mr. Inglis said.
But the agency is not recording "the content of any communications, what you're saying during the course of the conversation, the identities of the people that are talking or any cellphone locational information," he added. Instead, the NSA collects only the numbers called and calling, so that when the agency discovers the telephone number of a terrorist overseas, it can be discovered whether that person had been in touch with anyone in the United States.
"The controls on the use of this data at NSA are specific, rigorous and designed to ensure focus on counterterrorism," Mr. Inglis said. "To that end, the metadata acquired and stored under this program may be queried only [under] a reasonable articulable suspicion" of a link to terrorism.
Only 22 people in the entire NSA were empowered to certify that such a suspicion existed, Mr. Inglis testified, and they did so last year in regard to fewer than 300 phone numbers, called "selectors" when they are applied to the database.
"The reason there were so few selectors approved is that the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance] court has determined that there is a very narrow purpose for this use," he said, adding it is only for uncovering links of suspected terrorists in the United States.
A separate court order is not required for each query, he said.
"The court explicitly approves the process by which those determinations [to search for phone numbers] are made," Mr. Inglis said, "and the Department of Justice now provides a rich oversight auditing of that capability."
Gen. Alexander said that when the NSA comes across a U.S. connection to an overseas terrorist plot, it turns over the case to the FBI.
"NSA may not target the phone calls or emails of any U.S. person anywhere in the world without individualized court orders," he said. The term "U.S. person" includes all citizens, legal immigrants and U.S. corporations.
Deputy Attorney General James Cole noted that "countries and allies of ours all over the world collect intelligence. We all know this."
But the U.S. system is more "transparent [than] many of our partners, many in the EU, countries like France, the U.K., Germany, who we work with regularly," he said.
As evidence, he cited a recent white paper by the Hogan Lovells law firm, which he said found that U.S. rules, based on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, "impose at least as much if not more due process and oversight on foreign intelligence surveillance than other countries — and this includes EU countries."
The United States is also "much more transparent about its procedures," he said.
The stakes were high Tuesday, as officials attempted to explain the details of classified programs — only parts of which had been exposed. They said they were treading a fine line between releasing enough information to reassure Americans without initiating further damaging disclosures that might help terrorists or foreign spies evade surveillance.
Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican and committee chairman, called it "frustrating ... sitting at the intersection of classified intelligence programs and transparent democracy as representatives of the American people."
Officials have disclosed details of two U.S. plots that they said had been detected and stopped with the help of intelligence from the NSA's collection programs. Najibullah Zazi, who schemed to bomb the New York subway, and David Headley, who helped plan the 2008 Mumbai massacre, were caught because of their telephone or online communications with al Qaeda suspects abroad, officials said last week.
FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce revealed two more plots that he said had been disrupted with the help of intelligence from the two programs.
In one, a "known extremist in Yemen" was being monitored using Prism. The extremist was in contact with a man in Kansas City named Khaled Ouazzani.
"We went up on electronic surveillance and identified his co-conspirators" in plotting to bomb the New York Stock Exchange, said Mr. Joyce. "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 instance, the FBI in October 2007 reopened a cold case from 2001, after "the NSA provided us a telephone number only in San Diego that had indirect contact with an extremist outside the United States."
Gen. Alexander said that classified details of all 50-plus cases would be delivered to Congress on Wednesday and that the administration would work to declassify more of the programs' successes.
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