WASHINGTON -- The U.S. foiled a plot to bomb the New York Stock Exchange because of the sweeping surveillance programs at the heart of a debate over national security and personal privacy, officials said yesterday at a rare open hearing on intelligence -- a set-piece for supporters of the snooping.
The House Intelligence Committee, led by lawmakers sympathetic to the extraordinary surveillance, provided a venue for officials to defend the once-secret programs. There was limited probing of claims that the collection of people's phone records and Internet usage has disrupted dozens of terrorist plots, and few details were volunteered.
Army Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency, said the two recently disclosed programs -- one that gathers U.S. phone records and another that is designed to track the use of U.S.-based Internet servers by foreigners with possible links to terrorism -- are critical. But details about them were not closely held within the secretive agency.
Alexander said after the hearing that the documents accessed by Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old former systems analyst on contract to the NSA, were on a web forum available to all NSA employees.
He told lawmakers Snowden's leaks have caused "irreversible and significant damage to this nation" and undermined the U.S. relationship with allies.
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When Deputy FBI Director Sean Joyce was asked what is next for Snowden, he said, simply, "justice." Snowden fled to Hong Kong and is hiding.
Intelligence officials last week disclosed some details on what they said were two thwarted attacks, one targeting the New York subway system, one a Danish newspaper office that had published the cartoon depictions of the Mohammad. Yesterday, Alexander said more than 50 terrorist acts were averted because of the surveillance programs in question.
In one example, Joyce said the NSA was able to identify an extremist in Yemen who was in touch with someone in Kansas City, Mo., enabling authorities to identify co-conspirators and thwart a plot to bomb the New York Stock Exchange. He said this was made possible by one of the surveillance programs disclosed by Snowden, but he did not say which one.
Joyce also said a terrorist financier inside the United States was identified and arrested in October 2007 because of a phone record provided by the NSA. The individual was making phone calls to a known designated terrorist group overseas, Joyce said. He confirmed under questioning that the calls were to Somalia.
Alexander said the Internet program had helped stop 90 percent of the 50-plus plots he cited. He said just over 10 of the plots thwarted had a connection inside the United States and most were helped by the review of phone records.
Still, little was offered to substantiate claims that the programs have been successful in stopping acts of terrorism that would not have been caught with narrower surveillance. In the New York subway bombing case, President Barack Obama conceded the would-be bomber might have been caught with less sweeping surveillance.
Officials have long had the authority to monitor email accounts linked to terrorists but, before the law changed, needed to get a warrant by showing that the target was a suspected member of a terrorist group.
Committee members were incredulous about the scope of the information that Snowden was able to access and then disclose.
Alexander said Snowden had worked for 12 months in an information technology position at the NSA office in Hawaii under another contract preceding his three-month contract with Booz Allen.
"Egregious, egregious leaks," Joyce said.