June 18th, 2013
10:12 AM ET
9 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. obama victim

    this guy is in the regime....and I would believe anything he says because??????

    June 18, 2013 10:56 am at 10:56 am |
  2. Paulie

    Yesterday it was 20 today its 50 what will it be tomorrow?

    June 18, 2013 10:56 am at 10:56 am |
  3. Steve

    The 'number' claimed by the NSA is quickly becoming the greatest, official, 'fishing story' of all time. It keeps getting bigger every time they tell it. All pun intended.

    June 18, 2013 10:58 am at 10:58 am |
  4. Cathy

    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.

    June 18, 2013 10:59 am at 10:59 am |
  5. John

    I would like to take this time to thank the NSA, the CIA and the FBI for defending Americans from people who seek to destroy freedom.

    June 18, 2013 11:00 am at 11:00 am |
  6. Black Dynamite

    Here's the part nobody thinks about, nobody talks about.
    How hard is it to write a dialogue on a sheet of paper? How hard is it to put a story in black and white?

    I don't know this guy. I don't know the NSA. Just because they say they did something, that doesn't mean that's what happened. There is NO reason why I should trust what they say.

    They've been monitoring us under the cloak of darkness for years, most likely. All the more reason not to trust them.
    If this was all above board, they'd have some credibility.

    This guy will say anything to justify his existence. The end doesn't justify the means, no matter how many times you say it.

    This is America, and our rights are more important than their scare tactics. It's all fear-mongering, and I see through their BS. The chances whatever he comes up with is legitimate is very slim......

    June 18, 2013 11:01 am at 11:01 am |
  7. Religion=Cult

    It's joke and it's a show. There is no check and balance, BS..

    June 18, 2013 11:02 am at 11:02 am |
  8. J

    200 and spying on us will end up being how they found bin laden just sayin thats what they will say its time for new gov reps&dems no longger represent the people nor do they serve us Obama Bush= same dam thing

    June 18, 2013 11:02 am at 11:02 am |
  9. Robyn


    >> Fifty thousand terrorists,
    >> Fifty million terrorists,
    >> Trust me, you must give up on freedom.
    >> WOLF ! ! !

    Trust me, after the lies of the last decade. You simply have no credibility.


    June 18, 2013 11:02 am at 11:02 am |
  10. Joe

    If nobody is going to believe anything these guys say, then why bother calling them to testify in the first place?

    June 18, 2013 11:03 am at 11:03 am |

    WOULD like to know the breakdown of the 50.........how many on us soil, how many on foreign soil...... it's a very important point.

    June 18, 2013 11:03 am at 11:03 am |
  12. Walter

    And yet we never heard about a single one of these previously. Please, spare me your theatrics NSA.

    June 18, 2013 11:03 am at 11:03 am |
  13. The Elephant in the Room

    Whether you are Democrat, Independent or a Republican, IF you are upset at the collection of phone records or the PRISM e-mail scanning program then you need to research how YOUR Congressman voted on President Bush`s advocacy for the PATRIOT ACT in the wake of the 9-11 attacks. If he/she voted for the Patriot Act and you are currently upset; FIRE him/her and elect a representative from the opposite party. The responsibility lies with YOU, your VOTE and your CONGRESSMAN, Not President Obama.

    June 18, 2013 11:04 am at 11:04 am |
  14. truthsquad

    We get it and this is necessary however, we need stirct oversight including oversights of the IT administrators, other sources to watch if NSA,FBI that they are complying and my 4th amendment rights are not violated.

    June 18, 2013 11:04 am at 11:04 am |
  15. Religion=Cult

    You insult all American Citizen's intelligence, Sir

    June 18, 2013 11:04 am at 11:04 am |
  16. Data Driven

    "Rome us burning", "nazi Germany in the 30s"

    Some of you sound like certifiable paranoiacs. Get a grip.

    In any case, y'all supported this a decade ago when your team was running the show. The "oh-please" quotient from conservatives on this subject is through the proverbial roof.

    June 18, 2013 11:04 am at 11:04 am |
  17. Tonken

    So why did this information not work for the Boston Marathon bombers? As we have been told they had information from Russia not once but twice on these individuals. They had tracked phoned numbers. And yet the system was unable to stop the Boston marathon bombers. Im sorry but this only shows the depth of both democratic and republicans intrusion into our daily lives.

    June 18, 2013 11:05 am at 11:05 am |
  18. caesarbc

    It's a shame that Republican conspiracy theorists have prompted the outing of this type of surveillance that most Americans do not object to. Perhaps it is something that needs to be hashed out, but it sure does make us look really really dumb that we accepted it blindly under Bush, but seemed to have forgotten – or – at least Republicans do not like it now when a Democrat is in charge.

    June 18, 2013 11:05 am at 11:05 am |
  19. Mrsesterhouse

    This is so ridiculous its almost funny to me. They are coming out saying look, see, we are doing this to protect you. It doesn't matter how many they have supposedly thwarted. This is the rhetoric any government will use to make the people think they are safer and being protected by the government, when in fact keeping us safer and more protected is merely a coincidental bi-product, if even that. Using these methods to try and stop terror attacks is not justified by collecting information on every single American. Not even if it stops all attacks and only has to spy on one innocent American. How much are AMericans going to allow be taken from them in order to feel "safe"? This isn't a left/right thing, it is a government thing. And if it really is ok like the gov. is saying then why has it been so secretive and took someone to risk his life to get the truth out? I'm really curious to know what % of Americans are ok with what has been going on with this. I'd like to think its about 75/25 against/for but I don't think a lot of people either care, know, or they buy into what the NSA and gov are saying. What % of Americans do you think are against gov surveillance/collecting of information?

    June 18, 2013 11:05 am at 11:05 am |
  20. anchorite

    Sorry, spying on terrorists would have been OK. Spying on me and my family, and all of your families, and putting people in prison for even saying that our secret police existed, is not OK. I am not afraid of terrorism. I am afraid of governments that designate my whole family as enemy combatants.

    June 18, 2013 11:06 am at 11:06 am |
  21. j williamson

    And the US government wonders why a good many citizens simply do not believe a single thing they say? People have been lied to and deceived for way too long.

    June 18, 2013 11:07 am at 11:07 am |
  22. Thomas Henley

    Send this perjuring no good constitution violating cretin to jail.

    June 18, 2013 11:07 am at 11:07 am |
  23. Mark

    WHO CARES! The fact that these people think their supposed success at stopping some crime justifies their actions is absolutely frightening! You also perhaps stopped a few bad things from happening by rounding up Japanese families and locking them away. I'm sure you could stop a lot of bad things from happening by putting an ankle monitor for life on anyone with a tattoo.
    The point is I'd rather live in a free country that has the occasional attack then an Orwellian nightmare THAT STILL HAS THE OCCASSIONAL ATTACK!

    And 50? Ya right. If you couldn't stop the Boston bombing or 911 with specific information including names and addresses then I'm sure you haven't done jack squat with all this vague meaningless information!

    June 18, 2013 11:07 am at 11:07 am |
  24. Mark

    50 terrorist attacks stopped? lol

    June 18, 2013 11:08 am at 11:08 am |
  25. Lib.

    I believe the General! As a US citizen I would be willing to give up a bit of privacy since who In their right mind would talk on cell phones that much when conversation can easily be picked up? I am not a criminal and nothing to hide. What astonishes me most is many folks are so caught up with the Obama Hate syndrome that they fail to see nobody ever says anything about the websites that can tell your life history especially if you are a homeowner. You have websites that do background checks on anyone. Websites that can bring someone which is scarier to me, right to your front door. I would be more against these sites than what NSA is doing in trying to keep this country safe. If they did nothing the same Obama haters who fail to realize that Bush and Cheney were the abusers of this program more so than Obama would once again be Blaming the President. Hate is a very serious illness. I trust the general and this president who is trying very hard to not send our young people back into war.

    June 18, 2013 11:08 am at 11:08 am |
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