HERSHEY, Pa. — House Speaker John A. Boehner said Thursday that the National Security Agency’s snooping powers helped stop a plot to attack the Capitol and that his colleagues need to keep that in mind as they debate whether to renew the law that allows the government to collect bulk information from its citizens.
“We would never have known about this had it not been for the FISA program,” Mr. Boehner said, referring to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act provision that allows for bulk collection of data such as records of Americans’ phone calls.
On Wednesday, the FBI arrested an Ohio man and charged him with a plot to detonate pipe bombs and launch a rifle attack at the U.S. Capitol. The FBI arrested the man, Christopher Cornell, after he bought two rifles they said he planned to use in the attack.
In its affidavit filed with a federal court, the FBI said it learned of the man’s activities because an FBI informant told them he was posting jihadi messages under a Twitter account by the name of Raheel Mahrus Ubaydah.
Mr. Boehner said that wasn’t the complete story. He wouldn’t go into details, saying only that “we’ll let the whole story roll out there.”
He said lawmakers need to keep the plot in mind as they decide what to do with the FISA provisions.
It’s unclear exactly what FISA powers Mr. Boehner meant and his office declined to give details, but the expiring FISA provision under scrutiny is the one that the National Security Agency has used to justify its phone records snooping program, which collects and stores the dates, times and numbers involved in phone calls made within the U.S.
The snooping program has been in effect for years, but it was not revealed to the public until former government contractor Edward Snowden leaked details of it in 2013.
The revelation sparked an intense debate in Washington over the government’s powers, which the Bush and Obama administrations said stemmed from the Patriot Act, passed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Section 215 of the law authorizes collection of business records, but an author of the Patriot Act, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican, said he doesn’t believe it authorizes bulk collection. He and a coalition of conservative and liberal lawmakers have tried to pass a bill to cancel bulk collection.
Such a bill cleared the House but fell victim to a Republican-led filibuster in the Senate late last year.
Now Congress faces another deadline. The provisions of the Patriot Act that the government cites as justification for the snooping program are due to expire this year. Unless Congress reauthorizes the provisions, the programs could be forced to end.
Mr. Boehner, speaking at a joint retreat of House and Senate Republicans on Thursday, said the foiled bomb plot on the Capitol was a reason to make sure the law is kept in place.
He said average Americans don’t have to be worried, but the program can help identify terrorists.
“Our government does not spy on Americans unless there are Americans who are doing things that frankly tip off our law enforcement to an imminent threat,” he said.
Mr. Cornell, in messages to the FBI informant, said he intended his attack to show solidarity with the Islamic State terrorists on the march in the Middle East. He said he doubted he would get approval for the attack from terrorist leaders but wanted to proceed on his own.
In its affidavit, the FBI said the informant was cooperating for “favorable” consideration in his criminal case.
Mr. Cornell’s father told ABC News that the FBI enticed his son into the plot. He said his son didn’t have the money to buy the two rifles and argued that the cash must have come from the government informant.