Secret surveillance programs helped prevent more than 50 potential terror attacks worldwide, including plots to target the New York Stock Exchange and the city’s subway, the director of the National Security Agency testified on Tuesday.
Ten of the 50 potential threats were domestic, said Army General Keith B. Alexander.
A hearing before the House Intelligence Committee sought to calm fears among the American public that the U.S. government spies on them unconstitutionally, and repeated assurances that none of the NSA surveillance programs can target U.S. citizens at home or abroad without a court order.
“These programs are limited, focused and subject to rigorous oversight,” Alexander said.
Because of that, the civil liberties and privacy of Americans are not at stake, he added.
However, Bruce Fein, a specialist in constitutional law, said the NSA surveillance programs are unconstitutional because there is no demonstration of individualized suspicion, as required by the Fourth Amendment.
“The government has a burden to show some reasonable suspicion that someone being spied on is engaged in some wrongdoing before privacy can be invaded,” said Fein.
Nonetheless, the witnesses defended the NSA programs as legal and necessary because of the nature of the threat of terrorism.
“If you’re looking for a needle in a haystack, you have to get the haystack first,” testified Deputy Attorney General James Cole.
Alexander and other senior U.S. intelligence officials testified in response to details leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden about how the agency gathers data.
The hearing reviewed NSA surveillance programs 215 and 702. Testimony said program 215 gathers data in bulk from various providers, such as Verizon, but does not look at content or names, while program 702 applies only to foreign citizens.
The leak has sparked a debate among the American public over what information the government should be able to collect to safeguard national security, and how it should be allowed to gather it.
A recent Pew poll shows that a slight majority of Americans think the NSA surveillance programs are acceptable.
Meanwhile, U.S. President Barack Obama’s approval ratings have dropped over the past month.
Alexander linked the relative safety Americans have enjoyed since the 9/11 attacks directly to the NSA surveillance programs, but Fein said people’s fears are being exploited.
“Most people are risk-averse. They’re easily frightened, and told they need to surrender their liberties in order to be safe, even if it’s not true,” Fein said.
The government has not provided any evidence that these programs are effective, he added. “It’s just their say-so.”
When questioned about whether the NSA surveillance programs previously collected any other information, Alexander said what they have and have not collected remains classified and cannot be discussed.
However, some details about how the programs have stopped potential terror attacks would be presented as early as Wednesday to U.S. lawmakers, he said.
The largely docile Congress expressed overall support for the NSA programs, with Rep. Michele Bachmann framing Snowden as a traitor.
“It seems to me that the problem here is that of an individual who worked within the system, who broke laws and who chose to declassify highly sensitive classified information,” Bachmann said.
Alexander said they are investigating where security broke down, and how to provide better oversight for nearly 1,000 system administrators that can access classified information.
The leaks were viewed across the board as a threat to national security.
“These are egregious leaks… and now here we are talking about this in front of the world, so I think those leaks affect us,” said Sean Joyce, deputy director of the FBI.
Only one member of the House Committee, Rep. Jim Himes, said he was troubled by what he called the historically unprecedented revelations revealed in the leaks.
“We know that when a capability exists, there’s a potential for abuse… From time to time, it’ll be abused.”
Snowden cited his fear of future abuse as the primary motivation for leaking the programs.
In an interview with American journalist Glenn Greenwald, he said U.S. citizens are being watched and recorded, and he had the authority to wire tap anyone.
The Associated Press reported over the weekend that President George W. Bush secretly authorized the NSA to “plug into fiber optic cables” that would allow them to “monitor emails, telephone calls, video chats, websites, bank transactions and more.”
Alexander and the other witnesses were not questioned directly about this, but said they cannot access content under the current NSA surveillance programs.