By Patricia Zengerle and Tabassum Zakaria
WASHINGTON, June 18 (Reuters) - The head of the National
Security Agency on Tuesday said U.S. surveillance programs had
helped disrupt more than 50 possible attacks since Sept. 11,
2001, as sympathetic members of Congress also defended the use
of the top-secret spying operations.
In the first hearing dedicated to the surveillance programs
since former NSA contactor Edward Snowden revealed them earlier
this month, members of the House of Representatives Intelligence
Committee showed little will for significant reforms.
Instead, both U.S. officials and lawmakers spent hours
publicly justifying the phone and Internet monitoring programs
as vital security tools and criticized Snowden's decision to
leak documents about the programs to media outlets.
General Keith Alexander, the head of the NSA, said Snowden
had inflicted "irreversible and significant" damage to national
"I believe it will hurt us and our allies," Alexander told
the House intelligence panel, which oversees the vast
Snowden's disclosures have ignited a political furor over
the balance between privacy rights and national security, but
President Barack Obama and congressional leaders in both parties
have backed the programs and no significant effort has emerged
to roll them back.
While critics have blasted the surveillance as government
overreach without enough independent oversight, the proposed
legislative remedies so far have focused on tightening the rules
for independent contractors and making the secret court that
approves search warrants for surveillance more transparent.
Alexander told the panel the monitoring was legal, closely
supervised and crucial to defending Americans.
"I would much rather be here today debating this point than
trying to explain how we failed to prevent another 9/11,"
Alexander told the committee in his second public appearance
before Congress since the programs were exposed.
"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
... potential terrorist events over 50 times since 9/11," he
Alexander promised to give lawmakers classified details of
all of the thwarted incidents within 24 hours.
BOMB ATTACKS THWARTED
Sean Joyce, deputy FBI director, offered information on two
of the cases - a plot to bomb the New York Stock Exchange and
the provision of financial assistance to a terrorist group in
Somalia that conducted suicide bombings.
Officials had revealed last week two other such potential
attacks: a 2009 plan to bomb a Danish newspaper that had
published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad and a plot by
Islamist militants to bomb the New York subway the same year.
Members of the intelligence committee said they were holding
the hearing to set the record straight about how the programs
operated and their importance for national security.
Representative Dutch Ruppersberger, the top Democrat on the
committee, said the leaks "put our country and our allies in
danger by giving the terrorists a really good look at the
playbook that we use to protect our country. The terrorists now
know many of our sources and methods."
Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, a Republican, defended the
NSA. "People at the NSA in particular have heard a constant
public drumbeat about a laundry list of nefarious things they
are alleged to be doing to spy on Americans - all of them
wrong," he said.
Snowden, a former employee of government contractor Booz
Allen Hamilton who worked in an NSA facility in Hawaii,
defended his actions in an Internet chat on Monday and vowed to
release more details on the extent of the agency's access.
Snowden is believed to be in hiding in Hong Kong as the U.S.
Justice Department conducts a criminal investigation into the
Asked what was next for Snowden, Joyce gave a one-word
Alexander told the panel he had "significant concerns" about
how a low-level contractor like Snowden could gain access to so
much information and said it was part of the Federal Bureau of
Investigation's investigation. "We do have significant concerns
in this area and it is something that we need to look at," he
REFORMS AROUND THE EDGES
A handful of lawmakers have urged their colleagues to rein
in the surveillance programs, but they do not currently appear
to be in the majority. However, that could change if Snowden
leaks more revealing documents, as he has pledged to do.
Democratic Senator Mark Udall of Colorado, a long-time
critic of secret spying programs, has called for reopening the
USA Patriot Act, the post-Sept. 11, 2001, law that gave
intelligence agencies broader surveillance powers.
Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, a potential 2016
presidential candidate, has called for Americans to bring a
class-action lawsuit against the U.S. government.
But the main decision-makers on intelligence matters have
spent more time defending the programs than talking reform. And
the reforms they have discussed have not been sweeping.
Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, head of the Senate
Intelligence Committee, said last week that Congress would
consider legislation to limit government contractors' access to
certain classified information.
Obama, meanwhile, told PBS's "Charlie Rose" show that he
will meet with a privacy and civil liberties oversight board. He
has also sought to ease concerns about the scope of the
"What I can say unequivocally is that if you are a U.S.
person, the NSA cannot listen to your telephone calls, and the
NSA cannot target your emails ... and have not," Obama said on
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