National Security Agency Director Keith Alexander testified Tuesday before the House Intelligence Committee that phone and Internet surveillance programs made public by former defense contractor Edward Snowden prevented approximately 50 terrorist plots since 2001, 10 of which targeted the U.S., and said new policies are being crafted to prevent another large-scale leak.
Alexander disclosed that approximately 1,000 people are currently employed as NSA systems administrators – the position Snowden held – and that the agency is "working to come up with a two-person rule" to prevent people "from taking information out of our system." Snowden was a contractor assigned to the NSA by Booz Allen Hamilton before he downloaded and released information on the top-secret programs.
The intelligence agency leader didn't go into detail about what precisely the new "two person" rule would entail. "When one of those persons misuses their authority, that is a huge problem," Alexander said.
The government officials present at Tuesday's hearing publicly disclosed two cases they said were cracked with the broad communications surveillance: One in 2010, in which investigators nabbed Khalid Ouazzani for allegedly plotting with Yemeni co-conspirators to blow up the New York Stock Exchange and another in which a man was arrested for providing "financial support" to an extremist group in Somalia.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, questioned FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce at the hearing, inquiring if the NYSE plotters were serious or if the plans were "something they kind of dreamed about talking among their buddies." Joyce said the conviction of plotters showed it was a serious plan.
"Ouazzani had been providing information and support to this plot," Joyce testified. However, Ouazzani's defense attorney, Robin Fowler, disputed the government's tale, telling Wired magazine that his client "was not involved in any plot to bomb the New York Stock Exchange" and, in fact, his guilty plea is only for providing material support to al-Qaida.
Two previously disclosed examples – of New York subway bomber Najibullah Zazi and David Headley, who sought out Mumbai targets for terrorists – were disputed by the Guardian, which published the initial reports on the government programs. The Guardian reported that each case may have actually originated with tip-offs from British intelligence.
Alexander, the NSA director, testified that the programs, which were unknown to the public until earlier this month, are "subject to rigorous oversight" and touted the agency's "rigorous training programs" for analysts.
Under the phone record-collection program, which has been used to gather the metadata of customer phone calls from major U.S. companies for seven years, the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court requires that companies hand over records on an ongoing daily basis. The information is retained by the NSA for analysis. The orders are reissued every 90 days.
Alexander lavished praise on the FISA court – where targets do not have defense attorneys present – for its "superb" job with the secret programs. "They have been extremely professional, there is, from my perspective, no rubber stamp," he said.
"This is not a program that's off the books," testified Deputy Attorney General James Cole, who complained that news reports did not mention limitations on how the information can be used. Requests for access to the logs and records of access history are documented and audited, he said.
Cole said the Fourth Amendment – which protects Americans from unreasonable search and seizure – does not protect the phone records of Americans because customers of phone companies do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy for records of who they call. Nonetheless, he said, American citizens and permanent residents do not have their phone logs whimsically searched.
"Every now and then, there may be a mistake," Cole admitted, but he said those instances are "reported to the FISA court immediately," as well as congressional judiciary and intelligence committees.
Cole said that the Justice Department provides significant FISA court legal interpretations to congressional judiciary and intelligence committees. These interpretations are not shared with the public, and the Senate voted down a proposal to make the secret legal decisions public in December 2012 in a 54-37 vote.
The officials told lawmakers that the secret government collection and retention of Americans' communications are permitted by Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act and by Section 215 of the Patriot Act.