Intelligence officials defend surveillance programs as a necessity in war on terror

Here and Now

National Security Agency in Fort Meade, MD. (Photo by the National Security Agency.)

Government officials and lawmakers defended two large-scale surveillance projects at a rare open House Intelligence Committee meeting on Tuesday, in an effort to refocus the debate started by leaker Edward Snowden, the former government contractor who recently revealed the projects to the public.

The director of the National Security Agency explained that more than 50 potential terrorist attacks have been thwarted because of intelligence gathered through the surveillance projects, which he said are nonintrusive in the lives of most Americans.

"I'd much rather be here today debating this point that trying to explain how we failed to prevent another 9/11," Army Gen. Keith Alexander said at the meeting.

Officials revealed two previously classified terrorist plots, including one threatening the New York Stock Exchange and another less precise case regarding an individual investigated after 9/11, that were both stopped by intelligence gathered by the NSA's data collection programs, officials said.

According to Siobhan Gorman, intelligence correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, the NSA officials declined, though, to answer questions about system administrators, like Snowden, could access sensitive documents. Alexander told Congress there were about 1,000 people, with the majority employed as contractors, with similar access, Gorman said.

Officials, including Deputy Attorney General James Cole, responded to criticism that the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which has rejected just 33 out of more than 33,900 surveillance requests, is a "rubber stamp" that signs off on all of the government's warrant requests, thereby failing to keep data collection in check. 

"This is by no means a rubber stamp," Cole said. "There is an enormous amount of work and they're the ones to make sure that the privacy and the civil liberty interests of the United States citizens are honored."

Gorman said because the types of data the phone-tracking program records are limited to phone numbers and call times, it is likely that NSA's surveillance is as restricted as the government claims.

"The phone records are indeed just records, they're not phone conversations from millions of Americans that are being stored by NSA," Gorman said.

Officials reiterated that the program was not being misused to unnecessarily watch Americans.

"They really went overboard in trying to talk about what they see as a limited system with lots of internal, and to some degree external, balances," Gorman said.