Edward Snowden

NSA data used to foil Wall Street bomb plot, says US spy chief

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 June, 2013, 10:28am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 August, 2013, 4:13am

The US foiled a plot to bomb the New York Stock Exchange because of the sweeping surveillance programmes at the heart of a debate over national security and personal privacy, officials said on Tuesday at a rare open hearing on intelligence led by lawmakers sympathetic to the spying.

The House Intelligence Committee hearing provided a venue for officials to defend the once-secret programmes and did little probing of claims that the collection of people’s phone records and internet usage has disrupted dozens of terrorist plots. Few details were volunteered.

Army General Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency, said the two recently disclosed programmes – one that gathers US phone records and another that is designed to track the use of US-based internet servers by foreigners with possible links to terrorism – are critical. But details about them were not closely held within the secretive agency. Alexander said after the hearing that most of the documents accessed by Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old former systems analyst on contract to the NSA, were on a web forum available to many NSA employees. Others were on a site that required a special credential to access. Alexander said investigators are studying how Snowden did that.

He told lawmakers Snowden’s leaks have caused “irreversible and significant damage to this nation” and undermined the US relationship with allies.

When deputy FBI director Sean Joyce was asked what is next for Snowden, he said, simply, “justice”. Snowden fled to Hong Kong and is hiding.

In the days after the leaks, House Intelligence committee chairman Mike Rogers cited one attack that he said was thwarted by the programmes. In the comments of other intelligence officials, that number grew to two, then 10, then dozens. On Tuesday, Alexander said more than 50 attacks were averted because of the surveillance. These included plots against the New York subway system and a Danish newspaper office that had published cartoon depictions of Muhammad.

In a new example, Joyce said the NSA was able to identify an extremist in Yemen who was in touch with Khalid Ouazzani in Kansas City, Missouri, enabling authorities to identify co-conspirators and thwart a plot to bomb the New York Stock Exchange.

Ouazzani pleaded guilty in May 2010 in federal court in Missouri to charges of conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist organisation, bank fraud and money laundering. Ouazzani was not charged with the alleged plot against the stock exchange. Joyce said the arrest was made possible by the internet surveillance programme disclosed by Snowden.

Joyce also said a terrorist financier in San Diego was identified and arrested in October 2007 because of a phone record provided by the NSA.

The individual was making phone calls to a known designated terrorist group overseas, Joyce said. He confirmed under questioning that the calls were to Somalia.

Alexander said the internet programme had helped stop 90 per cent of the 50-plus plots he cited. He said just over 10 of the plots thwarted had a connection inside the US and most were helped by the review of phone records. Still, little was offered to substantiate claims that the programmes have been successful in stopping acts of terrorism that would not have been caught with narrower surveillance. In the New York subway bombing case, US President Barack Obama conceded the would-be bomber might have been caught with less sweeping surveillance.

Officials have long had the authority to monitor e-mail accounts linked to terrorists but, before the law changed, needed to get a warrant by showing that the target was a suspected member of a terrorist group. In the disclosed internet programme named Prism, the government collects vast amounts of online data and e-mail, sometimes sweeping up information on ordinary American citizens. Officials now can collect phone and internet information broadly but need a warrant to examine specific cases where they believe terrorism is involved.

Rogers and Representative C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, the intelligence panel’s top Democrat, said the programmes were vital to the intelligence community and assailed Snowden’s actions as criminal.

“It is at times like these where our enemies within become almost as damaging as our enemies on the outside,” Rogers said.

Ruppersberger said the “brazen disclosures” put the United States and its allies at risk.

Committee members were incredulous about the scope of the information that Snowden was able to access and then disclose.

Alexander said Snowden had worked for 12 months in an information technology position at the NSA office in Hawaii under another contract preceding his three-month contract with Booz Allen.