Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency, will give classified details of terrorist plots foiled with the help of the National Security Agency’s broad data gathering about Americans’ phone calls and online communications when he delivers rare open testimony to the House intelligence committee Tuesday.
“I do think he’ll talk about more disruptions of terror attacks” carried out with the help of the NSA’s collection programs, said committee Chairman Rep. Michael Rogers, Michigan Republican.
But he told NBC that officials were proceeding with “painstaking” slowness in declassifying details of the cases, because “We don’t want to make this more damaging than it already is.”
Earlier this month, a former NSA contract employee named Edward Snowden passed documents to the Guardian and Washington Post newspapers, disclosing the existence of programs he said were dragnets for details about who Americans were calling and for how long — so-called telephone metadata.
Obama administration officials have insisted that the programs are properly authorized by Congress and overseen by the special Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court; that they feature strong controls to protect the privacy of Americans; and that they have helped foil terror plots by closing what officials call a “seam” in their surveillance capabilities — when a foreign terrorist or spy overseas who can legally be monitored communicates with an American who is protected by the fourth amendment.
Expectations are running high for more disclosures at the hearing, which comes after President Obama said he had asked U.S. intelligence to declassify as much as safely possible about the programs.
He said the disclosures were necessary because Americans were being made “nervous” by all the secrecy surrounding the NSA programs, and would be more reassured the more they knew about them.
“Frankly, if people are making judgments just based on these slides that have been leaked, they’re not getting the complete story,” he told PBS’s Charlie Rose.
Last week, officials already disclosed details of two cases they said had been cracked with the help of the NSA’s programs.
But Monday night, President Obama acknowledged that though those cases had been investigated with the help of the NSA programs, they had originally come to the attention of authorities through tip-offs or other more conventional investigative techniques.
“We might have caught him some other way,” Mr. Obama said of 2009 would-be New York subway bomber Najibullah Zazi.
“We might have disrupted it because a New York cop saw he was suspicious. Maybe he turned out to be incompetent and the bomb didn’t go off. But at the margins we are increasing our chances of preventing a catastrophe like that through these programs,” he said.
Mr. Snowden, who says he is blowing the whistle on programs that are unnecessarily intrusive and unconstitutional, accused members of Congress and administration officials on Monday of exaggerating claims about both the success of the data gathering programs and the safeguards which are in place to prevent their abuse.
President Obama promised Monday to be “transparent” about PRISM and the other programs exposed — which he said allowed surveillance of Americans’ communications only with “an individualized court order.”