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. PaulCat

    Before some of you people post comments, you really need to do your home work. You just sound so stupid by not knowing the true facts. Use your brain.

    June 18, 2013 11:16 am at 11:16 am |
  2. Dennis Graves

    The government officials (Gen. Alexander, etc) appearing on CNN's broadcast of the congressional hearings outlined the method used to identify potential terrorists, using PRISM etc., and asserting that the content of emails and phone calls is not accessed without FISC court approval. They also discussed four cases in which the use of NSA-gathered data foiled terrorist plots and asserted that there are at least 50 more cases where NSA data may have foiled plots.
    I believe these officials are responsible, take their jobs seriously and would not be lying to Congress (which would be a Federal offense). Although Peter Bergen and the other CNN commentators do not have access to the information that the officials do, they are rendering OPINIONS that these officials are not being forthright. Such "reporting" is irresponsible, serving to sensationalize the issue in an apparent attempt to arouse public opinion against the Patriot Act programs that have enhanced our national security. Unless CNN can present information to demonstrate that the facts asserted by government officials are untrue or erroneous, CNN should tell its commentators to limit their unfounded opinions and base their comments on facts that can be proven. It is time for reporters and news outlets to place the national interest ahead of attracting viewers and selling advertising.

    June 18, 2013 11:17 am at 11:17 am |
  3. Drink the Coffee

    Okay has everybody had enough cups of government coffee or Gov Koolaide?

    I thake both sides with LARGE grains of salt....

    Trust No One... The Truth Is Out Therel........ Remember the X Files.... LOL!

    June 18, 2013 11:17 am at 11:17 am |
  4. Janet

    The bottom line is this: you either get security or privacy. You cannot have both. If you want your privacy, then you have no right to complain when someone carries out an attack on American soil. It could have been avoided but you preferred to keep your calls “private.”

    I am also growing tired of these panels. Every other week, there is a TELEVISED panel in which our representatives perform THEIR politics. I want my representative to get work done in Washington and not be part of this pointless political theater. At the end of the day, nothing concrete is going to come out of these hearings. Each side is going to spin the issue. This is just one of a series of distractions that keeps us from dealing with the real problems that our country faces.

    June 18, 2013 11:17 am at 11:17 am |
  5. CC

    Every regime claims the same thing....I fear the time of cleansing our society by the regime.

    June 18, 2013 11:17 am at 11:17 am |
  6. JohnC

    I never doubted this NSA program may have helped stop some plots but they don't seem to understand that may not be enough reason to have such programs and very least the public needs to have more input to decide if this is the way to go. No program can stop all attacks and even the ones they stopped may not have been successes (either other forms of law enforcement or the terrorists own incompetence may have prevented them). So the world isn't black and white and we the people need to to decide what level of rights we give up for what level of security. The government thought we wanted security "at all costs" and for many or most that is just not the case. While I don't praise Obama for all this I don't fully blame him as Bush and much of congress was in on this too - they did so we good intentions but screwed up as humans will do.

    June 18, 2013 11:17 am at 11:17 am |
  7. Neal k

    "We don't collect emails without a warrant"

    Remember that according to Clapper a few days ago, "collect" means "we open a book we already have on our bookshelf." In other words, no one is saying whether our emails are stored on NSA servers even if they're not being read.

    June 18, 2013 11:18 am at 11:18 am |
  8. Hrdwrknjoe

    Good, thanks for doing your JOB. Now stop spying on me!

    June 18, 2013 11:18 am at 11:18 am |
  9. Wake up People!

    I'm sure those wanting to attack us are loving this...... Funny thing is, we sure don't hear about other countries national security........

    People when everything is exposed, everyone finds out especially our enemies.

    Nothing but a bunch of Obama haters that feel he never should have been elected in the first place.

    June 18, 2013 11:19 am at 11:19 am |
  10. caesarbc

    Can't we just let that which is supposed to be secret remain secret, and ignore conspiracy theorists?

    June 18, 2013 11:19 am at 11:19 am |
  11. spike

    You need look no further than our president and many members of congress to ID the traitors here. They do it in open view. You don't need the NSA to see their actions. Tell me why we are sending billions of dollars to a muslim brotherhood govt. in Egypt who's stated goal is destruction of the west. Tell me why they sent military and financial aid to al queida aligned insurgents in the quest to oust Kadaffy in Libya. And now tell me why we are sending millions of dollars to al queida in Syria so they can overthrow Assad. This is blatant in your face treason. In the meantime they continue to send sons and daughters to fight these very elements in other lands. They either don't have a brain or they are traitors, or both. Snowden is but a diversion to the real treason going on.

    June 18, 2013 11:19 am at 11:19 am |
  12. pat

    Do not collect my private information. You do not have the right. I fear the threat to liberty more than the terrorists. I can do more about terrorists than I can about the government.

    June 18, 2013 11:19 am at 11:19 am |
  13. The Lord of Excess

    And this all matters how? So even if this saved a few thousand lives, this is not worth trampling on the rights of potentially hundreds of millions of citizens. Simply illegally possessing phone records, emails, etc. is constitutional/civil rights violation of anyone whose records are compromised in that manner. This is the biggest possible slap in the face to the sacrifice of all the men and women who have given their lives in defense of American freedom. This completely proves that we live in a nation without law, without a constitution and without any freedom at all. We are simply the cattle of the government (and the true masters of the 1%) at this point.

    June 18, 2013 11:20 am at 11:20 am |
  14. ruger

    Up yours NSA. Stay out of my life. Do not collect my private information.

    June 18, 2013 11:20 am at 11:20 am |
  15. caesarbc

    Yah – stop spying on Americans! Let terrorists do what they want!

    June 18, 2013 11:21 am at 11:21 am |
  16. rd

    I have no problem with NSA listening doing what they did if it protects us from harm. Sadly, the same people who are griping about it are the same ones who would be griping if the terror plots had been successful. You can't satisfy these people. They know all the answers, of course, always after the facts have been seen.

    June 18, 2013 11:21 am at 11:21 am |
  17. Dallas

    Destroying the constitution is a sure way to create terrorism here at home. Keep it up.

    June 18, 2013 11:22 am at 11:22 am |
  18. Wheels

    If they stop 1 terror plot its worth it for me for the govt to track to my high score in angry birds

    June 18, 2013 11:23 am at 11:23 am |
  19. Not listening to your calls

    Hopefully information is gathered and the person(s) are caught in the act, otherwise it's minority report in real life. Can't count thwarting a terror attack if you arrest a person for looking up how to make a bomb and not carrying it out. The program doesn't seem to be working as intended anyways. It sure as hell didn't help thwart the marathon bombing or shootings that have occured. Guess the program is picking up on those areas. Enemy of the State sound familiar?

    June 18, 2013 11:23 am at 11:23 am |
  20. Alex

    Time to whip up some "classified" documents...hold on there's a knock at my door

    June 18, 2013 11:23 am at 11:23 am |
  21. GrannyRN

    The bottom line here is that since the U.S. was attacked in 2001 Americans want to be Safe AND Secure AND Private. The problem is that you can't have it all.
    During WWII mail was censored, spying was conducted by whatever means was available at that time, people were incarcerated, etc.
    For some reason society believes that it can do Whatever, Whenever and it's nobody's damned business.
    This has never been true in wartime. And we ARE still at war with terrorism, foreign AND domestic.

    June 18, 2013 11:23 am at 11:23 am |
  22. rachelfox27

    I'd like to see numbers, data, facts! Tell us exactly how many terrorist acts have been stopped vs. how much data is actually collected, and how many people that affects. Also, tell us how many requests the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court have actually denied.

    June 18, 2013 11:24 am at 11:24 am |
  23. Bob

    I especially love the fact that CNN has had so many media people and others on who have said " The court has turned down no requests for further information the government requested: Well now we know these so knowledgeable folks were WRONG...So much for believing CNN.

    June 18, 2013 11:25 am at 11:25 am |
  24. sundownr

    Yes... they do have the ability to flip a switch a listen to whomever they want; and yes, this new American spy apparatus is as dangerous as it gets.

    June 18, 2013 11:25 am at 11:25 am |
  25. caesarbc

    Dare I say that terrorists have effectively infiltrated, subverted, undermined, and caused paranoid schizophrenic delusions amongst a perpetually divided citizenry? I smell Rome burning.

    June 18, 2013 11:26 am at 11:26 am |
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