June 18th, 2013
10:12 AM ET
2 years ago

Live blog: NSA Hearing

(CNN) - In a hearing Tuesday with the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the director of the National Security Agency, Keith Alexander, said that since 9/11, there have been more than 50 terror plots thwarted with the help of NSA surveillance programs.

Four of those incidents were detailed at the hearing, including thwarted plots to bomb the New York subway system and the New York Stock Exchange by linking known suspects in Pakistan and Yemen to contacts in the United States.

NSA officials are set to disclose information about the other cases in a private session with lawmakers on Wednesday.

Still, there is a debate within the intelligence community about what can be revealed to prove these programs work versus what should stay classified for fear of burning sources and methods.

Check back here for updates from the hearing.

1:06 p.m. ET -- House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Michigan, wrapped up the hearing.

"I know this has been difficult to come and talk about very sensitive things in a public way. In order to preserve your good work and the work on behalf of all the patriots working to defend America, I still believe it was important to have a meeting where at least in some way discuss and reassure the level and oversight and redundancy of oversight on a program that we all recognize needed extra care and attention and lots of sets of eyes. I hope today in this hearing we were able to do that."

12: 40 p.m ET –

12:35 p.m. ET - Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minnesota, asks how damaging the leaks are.

"I think it was irreversible and significant damage to this nation," Alexander said.

"Has this helped America’s enemies?" Bachmann asked.

"I believe it has and I believe it will hurt us and our allies," he said.

12:27 p.m. ET – Rep. Jim Himes, D-Connecticut, asked how many of those 50 episodes would have been thwarted without the use of phone records. "How essential–not just contributing to–but how essential are these authorities to stop terrorist attacks?"

Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who first reported the leaks, asked a similar question on Twitter Tuesday morning.

Responding to Himes, Alexander said the surveillance programs are vital to preventing terrorism.

"Going back to 9/11, we didn't have the ability to connect the dots. This adds one more capability to help us do that," Alexander said in response. "What we're doing here, with the civil liberties and privacy oversight, does help connect the dots."

Alexander said 90% of the more than 50 plots were prevented in part because of the online surveillance–not phone records collection–of suspects overseas. "In 50%, I believe they were critical," he said. A little more than 10 of the 50 had a domestic nexus and were thus targeted using phone records.

Sean Joyce, deputy director of Federal Bureau of Investigation, also jumped in with a response to Himes.

"I think you ask an almost impossible question to say how important each dot was. What I can tell you is post 9/11, I don't recognize the FBI I came into 26 years ago. Our mission is to stop terrorism, to prevent it, not after the fact, to prevent it before it happens in the United States. I can tell you every tool is essential and vital," Joyce said. "You ask: How can you put the value on an American life? And I can tell you it's priceless."

12:20 p.m. ET – Robert S. Litt, general counsel of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said NSA leaker Edward Snowden "wasn't nearly as familiar with these programs as he's portrayed himself to be."

"This is what happens when somebody who sees a tiny corner of things thinks it gives him inside (understanding) into the whole program," he said.

12:01 p.m. ET – Rep. Devin Nunes, R-California, brought up other controversies plaguing the Obama administration–the IRS scandal, "Fast and Furious," Justice Department leak investigations, and the U.S. consulate attack in Benghazi–and asked NSA officials to offer assurance that the agency is not leaking information itself.

Responding, Alexander said all the information the NSA disseminates is "100% auditable" and they have "not seen one of our analysts willfully do something wrong." The only mistakes he has seen are "honest mistakes," listing a typo as an example.

Nunes further pressed officials, asking them to explain the seriousness of the leaks.

Sean Joyce, deputy director of Federal Bureau of Investigation, said they're conducting a "criminal investigation" and repeatedly described the leaks as "egregious."

"We are revealing in front of you today methods and techniques. I have told you, the examples I gave you how important they have been. The first core al Qaeda plot to attack the United States post 9-11 we used one of these programs. Another plot to bomb the New York Stock Exchange we used these programs. And now here we are talking about this in front of the world. So I think those leaks affect us," he said.

NSA Director Gen. Alexander Testifies To House Hearing About Surveillance Programs

Sean Joyce, deputy director of Federal Bureau of Investigation (Photo by Getty Images)

New CNN/ORC Poll: A slight majority of those questioned in the poll disapprove of the actions of the man who leaked sensitive information about the NSA program. And a similar amount say Edward Snowden, who fled to Hong Kong, should be brought back to the U.S. and prosecuted

Snowden: Obama expanded program

11:36 a.m. ET - Reached by CNNMoney, the New York Stock Exchange declined to comment on the thwarted bomb plot.

Yahoo: What gov. wanted from us

11:35 a.m. ET - Asked if they plan to release the court opinions on NSA requests for phone and Internet intelligence gathering, Robert S. Litt, general counsel of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said they are looking into that.

11:17 a.m ET - Elaborating further on the disrupted terrorist attacks, Sean Joyce, deputy director of Federal Bureau of Investigation, said federal agencies used Internet surveillance–known as PRISM or Section 702 of the Patriot Act–to identify an extremist who was communicating with an individual in Kansas City. They were in the "very early stages" of plotting to bomb the New York Stock Exchange, he said.

Asked if their intention to bomb the NYSE was "serious," Joyce said, "The jury considered it serious since (the suspects) were all convicted."

In another instance, Joyce said they used phone records–Section 215–to identify an individual in San Diego who had "indirect contact" and who was providing financial support to an extremist outside of the United States.

11:13 a.m ET - Democratic Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, ranking member on House Intelligence Committee, asked Alexander if he feels like the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court is a rubber stamp in the sense that it approves all requests from the NSA to pursue investigations.

Alexander said he does not think the court acts in such a manner and praised the the federal judges on the court as "superb," adding that they "go back and forth to make sure we do this exactly right."

11:12 a.m. ET - New CNN/ORC Poll: Just over six in ten Americans say they believe that government is so large and powerful that it threatens the rights and freedoms of ordinary Americans.

Obama: I'm no Dick Cheney

11:10 a.m. ET - House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers asks if the NSA has the ability to "flip a switch" and listen to Americans' phone calls or read emails

Alexander said they do not have the authority or technology to do that.

11:04 a.m. ET - Deputy Attorney General James Cole said that because of the leaks, the government runs the risk of losing its capability to operate the collection programs. He did not say why but said they won't know for several months how the leaks affected the agency's surveillance abilities.

10:57 a.m. ET – Alexander said the NSA does not unilaterally collect information from Internet companies under Section 702. The companies are compelled to provide that information by law, he said.

Facebook, Microsoft disclose information on user data requests

10:55 a.m. ET – NSA official says phone record data collected under Section 215 must be destroyed five years after acquired.

10:45 a.m. ET – Sean Joyce, deputy director of Federal Bureau of Investigation, said the surveillance programs–specifically the program that gathers intelligence from Internet companies–helped stop a plot to bomb the office of the Danish newspaper that came under heat for publishing a cartoon of Mohammed in 2006.

In the United States, the program also helped them thwart a plan to bomb the New York City subway system and a plan to bomb the New York Stock Exchange, he said.

Read the full accounts from Joyce below.

New York City subway: "In the fall of 2009, NSA using 702 authority intercepted an email from a terrorist located in Pakistan. That individual was talking with an individual located inside the United States talking about perfecting a recipe for explosives. Through legal process that individual was identified as Najibullah Zazi. He was located in Denver, Colorado. The FBI followed him to NYC. Later we executed search warrants with the NY joint terrorism task force and NYPD and found bomb making components in backpacks. Zazi later confessed to a plot to bomb the NY subway system with backpacks. Also working with FISA business records the NSA was able to provide a previously unknown number of one of the co-conspirators Adis Medunjanin. This was the first core al Qaeda plot since 9-11 directed from Pakistan."

New York Stock Exchange: "NSA utilizing 702 authority was monitoring a known extremist in Yemen. This individual was in contact with an individual in the United States named Khalid Ouazzani. Ouazzani and other individuals that we identified through a FISA that the FBI applied for through the FISC, were able to detect a nascent plotting to bomb the NYSE. Ouazzani had been providing information and support to this plot. The FBI disrupted and arrested these individuals."

Danish newspaper: "David Headley, a U.S citizen living in Chicago. The FBI received intelligence regarding his possible involvement in the 2008 Mumbai attacks responsible for the killing of over 160 people. Also, NSA through 702 coverage of an al Qaeda affiliated terrorist, found that Headley was working on a plot to bomb a Danish newspaper office that had published the cartoon depictions prophet Muhammad. In fact, Headley later confessed to personally conducting surveillance of the Danish newspaper office. He and his co-conspirators were convicted of this plot."

FBI probe: "Lastly, the FBI had opened an investigation shortly after 9-11. We did not have enough information nor did we find links to terrorism so we shortly thereafter closed the investigation. However, the NSA using the business record FISA, tipped us off that this individual had indirect contacts with a known terrorist overseas. We were able to reopen this investigation, identify additional individuals through the legal process and were able to disrupt this terrorist activity."

10:40 a.m. ET – For Section 702 of the Patriot Act, which permits the collection and surveillance of information from Internet companies, Cole said only those living outside of the United States can be targeted.

10:30 a.m .ET – Cole said that the Fourth Amendment does not apply to Section 215, the part of the Patriot Act that permits the collection of phone records.

He said people should not expect privacy on such metadata, which includes the phone numbers, the time at which phone conversations took place and the duration of those calls.

10:25 a.m. ET - Deputy Attorney General James Cole listed some of the criteria for an NSA analyst to access phone conversations. As part of the oversight process, the NSA must get permission from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

While requesting permission, they must prove that person they want to investigate is involved with some sort of terrorist organization. To prove affiliation, the NSA must have independent evidence aside from personal writings, statements, etc, from the person they want to investigate that the individual is linked to an organization.

"You have to have additional evidence beyond that that indicates there is reasonable suspicion," he said.

Read more: House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers said Sunday that the NSA was "not listening to" Americans' phone calls.

10:22 a.m. ET – Alexander said they will bring classified documents to Capitol Hill Wednesday that detail all 50 cases in which the NSA programs helped prevent a terror plot. As reported already on CNN, he will present two of those publicly Tuesday.

However, they will not publicly release all of the cases, saying that would give away the NSA's secrets in how it tracks suspected terrorists.

"Too much is at risk for us and our allies," he said.

Alexander described the programs as "critical" for the government's counterterrorism efforts. If they had the phone surveillance program–known as Section 215 under the Patriot Act–before the September 11, 2001 attacks, he argued, they may have been able to track phone conversations between one of the hijackers living in San Francisco and a co-conspirator in Yemen.

10:20 a.m. ET - "In recent years these programs, together with other intelligence, have protected the U.S. and our allies from terrorist threats across the globe to include helping prevent the potential terrorist events over 50 times since 9-11," Alexander said.

10:19 a.m. ET - In his opening statements, Alexander said the leaked information about the phone records and Internet data sparked "considerable debate" in recent days, but the debate has been fueld by "incomplete and inaccurate information."

"Today we will provide additional detail and context on these programs to help inform that debate," he said.

10:16 a.m. ET – New CNN/ORC Poll: Americans are split on the controversial National Security Agency anti-terrorism program to record metadata on U.S. phone calls, but they support the NSA program that targets records of internet usage by people in other countries.

10:08 a.m. ET - House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Michigan, made his opening remarks.

"I look forward to hearing from all of the witnesses about the extensive protections and oversight in place for these programs. General Alexander, we look forward to hearing what you’re able to discuss in an open forum about how the data that you obtain from providers under the Business Records provision is used; and Deputy Attorney General Cole, we look forward to hearing more about the legal authorities themselves, and the state of the law on what privacy protections Americans’ have in business records," he said, according to his prepared remarks.

"General Alexander, you and I have talked over the past week about the need to be able to publicly elaborate on the success stories these authorities have contributed to without jeopardizing ongoing operations," he added. "I place the utmost value in protecting sources and methods, but I also recognize that when we are forced into the position of having to publicly discuss intelligence programs due to irresponsible, criminal behavior that we also have to carefully balance the need for secrecy with educating the public."


Filed under: House • NSA
soundoff (204 Responses)
  1. just askin

    we are being stalked by our government. isn't stalking illegal?

    June 18, 2013 11:50 am at 11:50 am |
  2. Gail D

    Does Alexander really look like a face you'd trust? Foiled 4 plots, yeah, who? The very people that are trying to cover their (proverbial) Still not worth stealing our freedom from illegal search. Stealing yep – and this ones bigger than what Putin pulled – NSA pulled this one on 315 million Americans with Inaienable Rights !

    June 18, 2013 11:51 am at 11:51 am |
  3. Leah

    Freedom isn't free.

    June 18, 2013 11:51 am at 11:51 am |
  4. Jerzy Kolodziej

    The depiction of the 215 case that was closed confirms our worst fears. The FBI found no evidence of a terrorist connection and the case was closed. After a significant time after the case was closed, the NSA then provided information obtained under 215 that connected the previous suspect with terrorist activity.

    Since the individual was no longer under suspicion and the as the NSA has gone to great lengths to say that the do not connect numbers with identities, it will take a great deal of explanation how they could have provided information that allowed the case to be reopened.

    A 702 was not involved... the only 215 that is likely to have assisted was a broad request for phone records or internet data. If the person was not under suspicion, as was apparently confirmed, why and how did the specific intelligence from the NSA "connect the dots". The presumption has to be that the NSA had the person under surveillance without any suspicion. This seems to prove that every US citizen is under surveillance by the NSA and there is no due process or restriction on this.

    June 18, 2013 11:52 am at 11:52 am |
  5. Freedumb

    Hey, here's an idea from way out in left field to reduce the number of terror plots, how about we bring our troops home, close our bases in the middle east and get our air aircraft carriers off our their coast.

    June 18, 2013 11:52 am at 11:52 am |
  6. Farrok

    Everyone in America shoud type the word Bomb in an email everyday for a few years and see it they can sort it all out.....
    Their computers will start to smoke....................

    June 18, 2013 11:54 am at 11:54 am |
  7. Greenspam

    So NSA is counting smack talk by someone online as thwarting a terrorist attack!

    June 18, 2013 11:54 am at 11:54 am |
  8. Rick

    If question is asked as: Do you agree with government surveillance of individuals in an efforts to deter terrorism, 80% vote Yes.

    If question is asked as: Do you agree with government "wire-tapping" of your phone and and email in an efforts to deter terrorism, 80% answer vote No.

    The action(s) taken to accomplish the above are the the same. In other words, it is ok if you do to someone just not me.

    June 18, 2013 11:56 am at 11:56 am |
  9. Angie

    I'ts crazy that we are led by the nose by a three month employee. My concern isn't surveillance, in my opinion thats nothing new. We apparently won't be satisfied until we all have a threat thwarting app on our devices similar to your computer virus updates :). I laugh at the people who are fixed on the "changing numbers"

    I want to know more about these contractors. I realize we need to keep up with the volume and variety of cyber threats but how can we avoid the leaks? I hope at some point someone can shed light on the possibility that the contractors have limited duties ( which would put snowdens assertions in context) or that they are so poorly managed and we can focus our attention on cleaning that up.

    Can we submit questions to the hearing? :)

    June 18, 2013 11:57 am at 11:57 am |
  10. Neil

    At what COST?

    June 18, 2013 11:58 am at 11:58 am |
  11. Name Katie

    I find it astounding that one of the excuses being used to spy on Americans is that other countries do it. It is absolutely irrelevant how other nations spy on their citizen they are not bound by the American constitution. Each time our government has been caught trying to circumvent our constitution they start screamimg "the terrorist are going to get us". Unfortunately, in the past, Americans have laid down and rolled over as commanded. Complacency will destroy our country.

    June 18, 2013 11:59 am at 11:59 am |
  12. Carol

    Anyone care to imagine what our country would look like if the 52 or more attacks weren't thwarted by Security being in place?

    June 18, 2013 12:04 pm at 12:04 pm |
  13. Lex Macklin

    Funny how Obama approval rating dropped yesterday because he passed that bill in government and suddenly they "find terror plots". It's a load of crap, all of it

    June 18, 2013 12:05 pm at 12:05 pm |
  14. harrisonhits2

    Nothing more than a room full of liars telling lies to each other to justify these gross violations of the Constitution. This is treason unfolding before our eyes.

    June 18, 2013 12:05 pm at 12:05 pm |
  15. just sayin

    Rick
    If question is asked as: Do you agree with government surveillance of individuals in an efforts to deter terrorism, 80% vote Yes.
    If question is asked as: Do you agree with government "wire-tapping" of your phone and and email in an efforts to deter terrorism, 80% answer vote No.
    The action(s) taken to accomplish the above are the the same. In other words, it is ok if you do to someone just not me.
    --

    of course... just like our tax system. raise the other guys taxes, not mine. it is all theoretical until you make all of this personal.

    would you have a problem with your dna being given to the government at birth? would you have a problem with you being stopped and frisked on the streets? would you have a problem with your every move being recorded and tracked by the government?

    only fools would answer yes.

    June 18, 2013 12:05 pm at 12:05 pm |
  16. Lib.

    I'm to believe the word of a HS dropout over the word of a four star general who gave his life for his country. I believe this general has more respect for the constitution than any of those on here complaining about their privacy. This man also has a family as the president that I am sure wants to see have a safe future in this country.

    June 18, 2013 12:07 pm at 12:07 pm |
  17. Sniffit

    "The presumption has to be"

    Nope. That's tinfoil hat talk.

    June 18, 2013 12:07 pm at 12:07 pm |
  18. sly

    Thank you President Obama for thwarting 50 terror attacks.

    Our President is an American hero – he killed America's #1 enemy of all time, and now he is preventing attacks on our soil.

    These are good time for America.

    June 18, 2013 12:08 pm at 12:08 pm |
  19. ThatsIt121

    Tyrannical governments always attempt to justify their actions by saying how much ‘good’ it does for their citizens. There are a many parallels in history that can be drawn here. Either believe the current government or the Founding document of our Country, your choice.

    June 18, 2013 12:09 pm at 12:09 pm |
  20. Sniffit

    "There was not one major terrorist attack before 9/11. That is something as well, is it not? "

    Untrue. They tried bombing the WTC towers in the 90's as well. Moreover, reaching backwards in time simply ignores the reality moving forward. Their capabilities and organization have grown immensely since the 90's and it's only been our efforts to destroy them that have kept that growth in sophistication and organization in (somewhat) check.

    June 18, 2013 12:11 pm at 12:11 pm |
  21. jake

    I hear people talking about their constitutional rights. this constitution that people clam is so out dated. yes our 4 fathers were great but they don t live in this new age. people are not riding ponies across the plains anymore. life is about change, everything about life change, our constitution needs to be upgraded.

    June 18, 2013 12:12 pm at 12:12 pm |
  22. Sawyer Carroll

    The idea that who we call, when we call them, the duration of the call, and the location of the calls in question are not protected by the fourth amendment is not a reasonable position. Justice Sotomayor has already raised such concerns; and I will post some of her thoughts below. It is also unreasonable to say that these programs are being overseen with checks and balances when every single request made to the FISA court has been approved for a number of years. Furthermore, it's impossible to sue the government for unconstitutional practices when you can't have your case heard due to the fact that it is impossible to prove you are being spied on without access to information the government deems vital to national security. How can there be consent of the governed when the policies being enacted are done so behind closed doors with no public debate?

    "Awareness that the Government may be watching chills associational and expressive freedoms. And the Government's unrestrained power to assemble data that reveal private aspects of identity is susceptible to abuse. The net result is that GPS monitoring–by making available at a relatively low cost such a substantial quantum of intimate information about any person whom the Government, in its unfettered discretion, chooses to track–may "alter the relationship between citizen and government in a way that is inimical to democratic society."" – Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor

    June 18, 2013 12:13 pm at 12:13 pm |
  23. Sniffit

    Haha..."OMG, THIS MUST ALL BE UNTRUE BECAUSE IT CONTRADICST WHAT I'VE DECIDED TO BELIEVE INSTEAD!!!!" It's not just out gov't that stepped through the looking glass, believe that. This was all fine and dandy with conservatives when Dubya and Cheney did it..." but we never intended for a black Dem POTUS to wield these powers."

    June 18, 2013 12:14 pm at 12:14 pm |
  24. Sniffit

    "The idea that who we call, when we call them, the duration of the call, and the location of the calls in question are not protected by the fourth amendment is not a reasonable position"

    Too bad SCOTUS precedent already addresses that and says it's not. Sure, we can argue that it should be overturned, but you can't just pretend the precedent doesn't exist.

    June 18, 2013 12:15 pm at 12:15 pm |
  25. Sniffit

    "While the men are explaining exactly what these laws cover and how they work, It would be really NICE and HELPFUL to actually hear what they have to say! NOT hear what your analysts' have to say. How can we make any kind of decision on whether we agree of disagree with what is happening ,if we don't get all of the actual information and not the opinions of your analyst."

    CNN is not in the business of informing you. They are in the business of entertaining you while they misinform you. It's called "news," but it certainly isn't journalism.

    June 18, 2013 12:19 pm at 12:19 pm |
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