Officials: NSA Spying Foiled 50 Terror Plots

They include plots on the New York Stock Exchange and the New York City subway system.

Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole, NSA Deputy Director John Inglis, NSA Director U.S. Army General Keith Alexander, FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce, and ODNI General Counsel Robert Litt testifying on Tuesday. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

WASHINGTON — Top intelligence and law enforcement officials told Congress in a public hearing on Tuesday about a few of the terrorist plots that they say were foiled by the National Security Agency’s controversial domestic surveillance programs.

NSA Director General Keith B. Alexander also said that more than 50 plots had been thwarted by the new powers afforded to the NSA by the Patriot Act, and that the details of all of them would be brought to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. They will not be declassified for public consumption.

The foiled terrorist plots cited by Alexander and by FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce, testifying at a hearing convened by the House Intelligence Committee, include the planned Najibullah Zazi 2009 New York City subway bombing, the example that’s been most cited by officials as an NSA success story in the wake of leaks that have harmed the agency’s reputation. Zazi, Alexander said, would not have been caught without PRISM.

Publicly available documents have raised questions about officials’ claim that PRISM was central to catching Zazi.

Other examples given by the witnesses were a plan to attack the offices of the newspaper in Denmark that published a cartoon of Mohammed in 2006, as well as the Khalid Ouazzani New York Stock Exchange bombing plot. The officials said that the powers granted to them under section 702 of the Patriot Act, which allow the government to collect data on people “reasonably believed” to be outside the United States, were essential in catching the would-be terrorists before they acted.

“These tools have helped us,” Joyce said.

Alexander stressed that the number of attacks that the programs thwarted was “over 50.”

Asked how crucial the NSA’s abilities were in these cases, Alexander said “in 90% of these cases, 702 contributed, and in 50%, it was critical.”

Just over 10 of the plots, Alexander said, had a “domestic nexus” and required a FISA court order.

“Going back to 9/11, we didn’t have the ability to connect the dots,” Alexander said. “This adds one more ability to help us do that.”

Lawmakers and other officials have alluded to the plots that NSA data-mining programs prevented but have not gone into this much detail about the number of attacks and the specifics before this.

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