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The director of the National Security Agency said the government’s surveillance programs have thwarted 54 terrorist plots worldwide, including one directed at New York City’s subways.
Army Gen. Keith Alexander said the two recently disclosed programs — one that gathers U.S. phone records and another designed to track the use of U.S.-based Internet servers by foreigners with possible links to terrorism — were conducted legally.
“I think it’s something to be proud: We have defended the nation 54 times — and our allies — and we have ensured the protection of our civil liberties and privacy, and oversight by all three branches of the government,” Alexander said June 28 at an Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association cybersecurity conference in Baltimore.
Alexander said the programs were the result of efforts to legally “connect the dots” at home and abroad after Sept. 11, 2001, and that they were created with “exceptional oversight by all three branches of government.” Citing a Senate intelligence committee report, he said no government official had ever willfully used the program to circumvent the law.
Intelligence officials last week disclosed some details on two thwarted attacks — one targeting the New York subway system, one to bomb a Danish newspaper office that had published cartoon depictions of Prophet Muhammad.
Sean Joyce, deputy director of the FBI, offered additional details on two other foiled plots, including one targeting Wall Street in congressional testimony last month.
Of the 54, 12 involved material support to terrorism and 50 led to arrests or detentions. Twenty-five involved Europe, 11 involved Asia, five in Africa and 13 “had a homeland nexus.”
Under the law, Alexander said, the government collects, from commercial Internet service providers, metadata that is kept in a “virtual lockbox” and can only be retrieved with “reasonable, articulable suspicion,” and only when there is “a foreign nexus or association with al-Qaida or other foreign terrorist organization.” The government did so less than 300 times in 2012.
His comments came amid widespread support in Congress, and the same day The New York Times published an op-ed piece expressing that the laws under which the programs were established were not intended to authorize mass surveillance. The programs “violate both the letter and the spirit of federal law,” the essay reads.
“Through a series of legal contortions, the Obama administration has argued that Congress, since 9/11, intended to implicitly authorize mass surveillance,” reads the essay, written by legal scholars. “But this strategy mostly consists of wordplay, fear-mongering and a highly selective reading of the law. Americans deserve better from the White House — and from President Obama, who has seemingly forgotten the constitutional law he once taught.”