June 18, 2013, 1:21 PM — U.S. law enforcement agencies have disrupted more than 50 terrorist plots in the U.S. and other countries with the help of controversial surveillance efforts at the U.S. National Security Agency, government officials said Tuesday.
NSA surveillance programs recently exposed by NSA contractor Edward Snowden have played a key role in disrupting terrorist activity in more than 20 countries, including 10 terrorist plots in the U.S., since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S., NSA director General Keith Alexander told U.S. lawmakers.
"In the 12 years since the attacks on Sept. 11, we have lived in relative safety and security as a nation," Alexander told the U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee. "That security is a direct result of the intelligence community's quiet efforts to better connect the dots and learn from the mistakes that permitted those attacks to occur on 9/11."
Officials with the NSA and the U.S. Department of Justice defended the surveillance programs during Tuesday's hearing, saying the programs are subject of rigorous oversight by the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and Congress. Officials contradicted allegations by Snowden, who has said the few controls at the NSA are easily circumvented by NSA analysts.
The NSA must file multiple reports on its surveillance to Congress and to the surveillance court, and the DOJ audits the programs for compliance with the law, officials said. Contrary to allegations by Snowden, the NSA is prohibited by law to listen to phone calls or read emails of U.S. residents or U.S. citizens living abroad, officials said. The agency does refer information about terrorist plots involving U.S. residents to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Alexander said.
The NSA and FBI do not have databases containing U.S. residents' phone calls, email messages, text messages, video surveillance or GPS tracking, officials told the committee. The agencies do not data mine the information they collect, officials said.
The FISA Amendments Act, one of two laws allowing NSA surveillance, "cannot be and is not used to intentionally target any U.S. citizen or any U.S. person," said Chris Inglis, deputy director at the NSA.
The surveillance court is not a "rubber stamp" for the NSA as some critics have suggested, officials added. While the FISA court ultimately approves nearly all surveillance requests, FISA judge staffers often push back on surveillance requests and require changes, said Robert Litt, general counsel in the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence.