The Obama administration’s credibility on intelligence suffered another blow Wednesday as the chief of the National Security Agency admitted that officials put out numbers that vastly overstated the counterterrorism successes of the government’s warrantless bulk collection of all Americans’ phone records.
Pressed by the Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee at an oversight hearing, Gen. Keith B. Alexander admitted that the number of terrorist plots foiled by the NSA’s huge database of every phone call made in or to America was only one or perhaps two — far smaller than the 54 originally claimed by the administration.
Gen. Alexander and other intelligence chiefs have pleaded with lawmakers not to shut down the bulk collection of U.S. phone records despite growing unease about government overreach in the program, which was revealed in documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
“There is no evidence that [bulk] phone records collection helped to thwart dozens or even several terrorist plots,” Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and committee chairman, told Gen. Alexander of the 54 cases that administration officials — including the general himself — have cited as the fruit of the NSA’s domestic snooping.
“These weren’t all plots and they weren’t all foiled,” he said.
Mr. Leahy and Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican and author of the USA Patriot Act, which the government says allows bulk data collection, are working on a bill to roll back that authority.
In a summary they floated to colleagues Wednesday, the men said they would end bulk collection and require the NSA to show that the data it is seeking are relevant to an authorized investigation and involve a foreign agent.
The two lawmakers also proposed a special advocacy office with appellate powers to be part of the proceedings in the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and requiring the court to release secret opinions that lay out major interpretations of law.
“Yes,” Gen. Alexander replied in a departure from normal practice.
Administration officials giving testimony to Congress, even when asked to confine themselves to a simple yes or no, rarely do.
In response to a follow-up question, Gen. Alexander also acknowledged that only one or perhaps two of even those 13 cases had been foiled with help from the NSA’s vast phone records database. The database contains so-called metadata — the numbers dialing and dialed, time and duration of call — for every phone call made in or to the U.S.
Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper denied that the number of plots foiled should be the sole metric by which the success of the program is measured. “I think there’s another metric here that’s very important. … I would call it the ‘peace of mind’ metric.”
He explained that the agency also could use the database to satisfy itself that global terrorists abroad did not have connections or associates in the U.S., and that attackers like those at the Boston Marathon were not part of a wider international plot.