June 18th, 2013
10:12 AM ET
7 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. Bob

    Well, looks like the government didn't think it had to tell Snowden all the classified information and NOW there is no doubt he is in fact a traitor and should be prosecuted. Unless of course those of you bozos out there are ok with thousands of deaths by terrorists. If you think that way I suggest you look in the mirror and say there is a fool looking back at me.

    June 18, 2013 11:40 am at 11:40 am |
  2. yeomanonymous

    Wait a minute! The NSA does not have the technology to flip the switch and listen to phone calls of Americans or read their email or private text content? Yeah okay! THIS IS A GREAT LIE – We could have prevented 9/11 had we been able to monitor calls. No, if you people in the Intelligence Community would have communicated with EACH OTHER you could have thwarted 9/11. All the signs were there at least months ago and you guys fumbled the ball!! Spying on Americans would not have stopped 9/11. Listening to your informants and following up on leads that were basically handed to you would have stopped it. Please, we are not that stupid!! Don't use 9/11 as a sorry excuse to freely spy on Americans!!!!

    June 18, 2013 11:40 am at 11:40 am |
  3. JGer

    Anyone who thinks that a government spying on its own people is ok does't understand the concept of freedom. By the way, I'm not an Obama hater...voted for him twice. This has nothing to do with politics, it has to do with right and wrong. The American people should be able to trust their government; how can anyone trust a government that is spying on them. If they need to spy on people fine, get a warrant and spy. It's not about being "safe" or having privacy...it's about the foundation of the our nation...4th ammendment. If we give up our bill of rights there is nothing left to make America any better than China or Russia. This is exactly what the terrorists wanted in 2001...to destroy our freedoms and because of cowards like those who would willingly give up their freedoms to be "safe" they have won...the war is over.

    June 18, 2013 11:40 am at 11:40 am |
  4. M

    If we get attacked then we won't have any privacy to worry about. The government is doing what they have to do to protect us. If you don't have anything to hide, then don't worry about it! I believe in privacy but not when it means that my security is being threatened. Good Job CIA traitor for revealing our nations' most important secrets.Now are enemies know our national security procedures. People need to get over this...it has been happening for so many years, and people just want to give President Obama a tough time because they just don't like him. Let the man do his job and protect our country and our freedoms.

    June 18, 2013 11:40 am at 11:40 am |
  5. ihbarddx

    OK! There you go! Everybody give up all your liberties!
    What is this, some kind of coup?

    June 18, 2013 11:40 am at 11:40 am |
  6. brasstacs

    I have no doubt that the surveillance program has prevented terrorist attacks,but there's also evidence the spying didn't stop at terrorist prevention and was also used against US citizens for a number of political reasons... The program that has prevented evil could also become corrupted and abused,and used for evil.

    June 18, 2013 11:40 am at 11:40 am |
  7. El Flaco

    This cannot be true! It contradicts Conservative Propaganda Bullets therefore I order you NOT to believe it.

    Think, instead, of all the old people that Obama's Death Panels have snuffed.

    June 18, 2013 11:41 am at 11:41 am |
  8. Data Driven

    Reading these comments is like a 10-minute amusement park ride in Crazyland.

    I'm starting to change my mind about the Patriot Act; some of you need to be watched. Of course, if you're posting here, you're on the grid and are being watched already.

    June 18, 2013 11:41 am at 11:41 am |
  9. Stef

    Time to go to WalMart and get me a prepaid phone. I am paying cash.

    June 18, 2013 11:42 am at 11:42 am |
  10. TimeforChange

    Stopped the bombing of the NYSE? OMG! What a tragedy that would've been for all the rich assholes. I couldn't care less if that would've happened. I want you out of every little aspect of our lives. Government is way too big and it will be the generations that come that face the ramifications of our inaction. At least 6 years of invading our privacy and you bring a thwarted beginning stage attack to the NYSE to the table?

    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.
    Does this imply that we can pass laws now to overrule the constitutional rights of Americans? This government is a corrupt joke and needs to go. No wonder we are all viewed as potential terrorists. With the horrible jobs these people do at the White House, I would fear repercussions from my own people as well. Time for these old bags of hot air to go. We've watched these people put us through all kinds of publicly defamed wars and now we get to go to Syria and give some weapons to some more terrorists, (probably in order to keep PRISM relevant). It's place is a joke anymore. I used to be proud to be an American, now it's rapidly going down the tubes.

    June 18, 2013 11:42 am at 11:42 am |
  11. Black Dynamite

    This reminds me of when Colin Powell told the UN there were "Weapons of Mass Destruction" in Iraq......

    June 18, 2013 11:42 am at 11:42 am |
  12. JGer

    Wakeup people – You tell me how many people "have to die to protect your rights". We have lost 10s of thousands of Americans in wars all over the world since the beginning our nation to do just that...protect your rights, even your right to make stupid comments.

    June 18, 2013 11:43 am at 11:43 am |
  13. NSA Already Knows Who I Am

    NSA: We sacrificed the liberty of a nation to save the lives of a few.

    June 18, 2013 11:43 am at 11:43 am |
  14. Leah

    9/11 cost this country more than the loss of thousands of innocent lives & infrastructure. It cost this country 2 long term wars and near a decade of unrest in our markets/invested savings.

    The last thing we needed on the heels of that were more major terrorist attacks. The last thing we need today is a major terrorist attack.

    June 18, 2013 11:44 am at 11:44 am |
  15. kcsue

    Plz tell us how to protect us from terror without spying???!!! Let's be very real about this world of demons and humans.....it makes me sick that we spy on friends ( fb?) sig others, our children, etc, etc, but we do!!!! How , please tell us how we can possibly stay ahead of terror without spying????? Cast the first stone those of you who are PERFECT and have perfect answers on how to accomplish safey, security for the good people of the world??? God bless and save all of us and this mess of a world we have all helped create.....

    June 18, 2013 11:44 am at 11:44 am |
  16. rosethornne

    It's unconstitutional and unpatriotic.
    I don't care if it pretended to "stop" fifty thousand "attacks", it's still wrong.

    Life is not secure. You can be hit by a bolt of lightning on your doorstep, or run over by a Coors truck while out jogging, or slip in the bathtub and crack open your skull.

    Does this mean you give up the right to have doorsteps, go outside, or take baths?
    Certainly NOT!!

    June 18, 2013 11:45 am at 11:45 am |
  17. Fair is Fair


    Not one major terrorist attack since 9/11. That is something.
    There was not one major terrorist attack before 9/11. That is something as well, is it not? Your chances of choking on tonights dinner, getting killed driving home, hitting the lottery, and getting struck by lightning all in the same day are greater than being killed in a terrorist attack. I'll take my chances with the terrorists.

    June 18, 2013 11:45 am at 11:45 am |
  18. Bill from GA

    Much of this extreme data-mining of phone, internet and credit card records was exposed in 2006 by an NSA worker named Russell Tice. One story out at the time and still available online mentions a 'Spy-Room', a facility in San Francisco near a major AT&T fiber optics hub, run by the NSA, and implies that the NSA had many around the country.

    Congress has known about this probably all along as the spying grew. And the info has been readily available to the masses for at least 7 years.

    Snowden should be prosecuted for violating his oath, else such vows are meaningless.

    Congress should take the current outrage and use it to get bi-partisan support to tone down the Patriot Act, else the intrusions in our private life will continue to grow. There is no limit to what the government can so to 'protect' us, except the limits we as Americans DEMAND.

    June 18, 2013 11:45 am at 11:45 am |
  19. ObjectiveGuy

    Here's a thought. Now that the government has inserted itself as the administrator of our nation's healthcare system, would it be so far fetched to think that Obamacare benefits would be denied to political dissidents (I.e. Republicans, conservatives, Tea Partiers, business leaders, etc.)? After all, that is what the IRS was doing under the Obama administration; why not do it through healthcare too? Does anyone else think the government is amassing way too much power over its citizens, and at an alarming rate? This is how freedoms get taken away, in small ways at first, and then on a larger scale. Why does our government want/need this kind of power, in a country that is supposed to value the rights and freedoms of the individual? There is a distinct and disturbing trend occurring right before our eyes, and we need to let our government know that we will not tolerate our right to privacy being violated. It's fine to keep a database of suspected terrorists and to monitor their contacts, but leave the rest of us out of it.

    June 18, 2013 11:45 am at 11:45 am |
  20. caesarbc

    I love when these types of Congressional hearings divert our collective attention away from a rising DOW.

    June 18, 2013 11:46 am at 11:46 am |
  21. Fair is Fair


    So it is time to start encrypting everything. Phone calls. Text messages. Emails. Files on your computer. Files you store in the cloud. The technology exists and is publicly available for free or a small fee: e.g. RedPhone, TextSecure, TrueCrypt, BoxCryptor, SIlent Circle, Seecrypt, Wickr.
    Yeah.... that won't raise any red flags, now will it? Let me know how that works out for you.

    June 18, 2013 11:47 am at 11:47 am |
  22. Thor

    We citizens have absolutely no problem with valid uses of the authorization found within the Patriot Act, with respect to obtaining a legal affidavit supported search warrant, signed by judges within the venue appropriate to the act. HOWEVER, what we are having issues with are the searches that are beyond reasonable; those that are not within the boundaries of the Patriot Act; such as those that are "blanket search warrants" that are authorizing general data gathering, listening, reading, intercepting... those that would be normally excluded from real and true relationships to possible acts of terrorism. THAT is where the NSA is being deceptive about. We, as citizens protected by the United States Constitution, KNOW that Snowden is revealing information, BUT it is SELECTED specifically to reveal to those of us who are.... aware.... of the goings on of our government, that there is a dangerous line being crossed and, if we let it continue, it will be abused if not already crossed. AND WE SUSPECT IT HAS. Mr Snowden has made it very clear that the boundaries are gray enough to cause him to give up so much. We look at all of this, including the rest of the "challanges" presented to this administration, and find that it seems we have a duck.

    June 18, 2013 11:47 am at 11:47 am |
  23. Realityblowz

    Tell us your lies. Tell us how the Founding Fathers would support this. Lull the mindless masses back to their slumber, only to be awakened by the next intrusion into our lives and our freedoms. Repeat your soothing words of wisdom and comfort us back to sleep. Keep the television sports and celebrity train wrecks on to distract us from your shackles that you fit us for our safety. We are cattle.

    June 18, 2013 11:47 am at 11:47 am |
  24. Jay

    I am not a US citizen. I continue to wonder why there were no major attacks after 9-11 on US soil, even though it was the target of every terror group in the world. Do you guys understand that fact ? I dont think the safety would have been possible with out all these surveillance measures that are now being cried afoul of..

    June 18, 2013 11:48 am at 11:48 am |
  25. Malory Archer


    We must still be in war time. And we thought Obama had solved the world's problems.


    Considering the mess the previous occupant of 1600 Pennsilvania Avenue left of the world, it's going to take both of President Obama's two terms, plus Hillary's two terms just to get the damage under control.

    June 18, 2013 11:50 am at 11:50 am |
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