Is NSA exaggerating its surveillance successes?

Critics of NSA data-mining and Internet surveillance programs discount Tuesday's report that such efforts foiled 50 terrorist attacks – 10 of them in the US. Here's why they remain skeptics.

Charles Dharapak / AP
National Security Agency (NSA) Director Gen. Keith B. Alexander talks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 18, 2013, after he testified before the House Intelligence Committee hearing regarding NSA surveillance.

Has the National Security Agency exaggerated the importance of some of its sweeping surveillance programs? That’s what agency critics are charging after top US security officials defended recently disclosed NSA activities at an extraordinary House Intelligence Committee hearing on Tuesday.

NSA collection of US phone metadata and snooping on the Internet traffic of foreign terrorism suspects has helped prevent 50 terrorist attacks in 20 countries, NSA Director Keith Alexander told largely sympathetic Intelligence Committee lawmakers.

Ten of the thwarted incidents were “homeland-based threats,” said General Alexander. These included a nascent attempt to bomb the New York Stock Exchange and a plot to set off backpack bombs on the New York City subway, according to NSA officials.

Given the possible intrusiveness of the NSA programs in question, that is not much in the way of a track record of success, claimed national security blogger Marcy Wheeler in response to these revelations.

“Headline for this hearing HAS to be: Dragnet provides little upside, that can be provided in other, for massive risk,” she tweeted.

Ms. Wheeler and other critics focused on the alleged New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) plot as evidence that the NSA is scraping the bottom of its barrel of data for a positive example.

According to officials at the House Intelligence hearing, this plan was caught when the NSA was using its Internet intercept authority to monitor the communications of a known extremist in Yemen.

This suspect, in turn, was in contact with an individual in the United States named Khalid Ouazzani. Thus warned, the FBI investigated Mr. Ouazzani through traditional law enforcement methods, and discovered a burgeoning plot to bomb the NYSE.

“Ouazzani had been providing information and support to this plot,” FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce told lawmakers.

However, Mr. Ouazzani pleaded guilty to providing material support – in his case, money – to Al Qaeda, not to terror planning. His May 2010 plea agreement makes no mention of anything related to the New York Stock Exchange, or any bomb plot, notes David Kravets in Wired magazine.

Plus, Ouazzani’s defense attorney said Tuesday the stock market allegation was news to him.

“Khalid Ouazzani was not involved in any plot to bomb the New York Stock Exchange,” attorney Robin Fowler told Wired.

As to the New York subway plot, it was discovered not by analysis of vast amounts of Internet data of foreign users, but rather by old-fashioned police work, according to The Guardian, the British newspaper that first published a secret NSA document showing the agency collected phone metadata from Verizon Business Services.

A British intelligence investigation into a suspected terrorist cell in England’s northwest first turned up a crucial e-mail address of a Pakistani extremist, write The Guardian’s Ed Pilkington and Nicholas Watt. They passed this address to the US.

Surveillance of this one address led the US to Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan-American living in Colorado who had asked the Pakistani extremist for explosives recipes. FBI agents followed Mr. Zazi as he traveled to New York. Search warrants turned up bomb components, and in 2010 Zazi confessed to a plot to bomb the city’s subway system with backpacks.

The NSA’s sweeping data interception capability “played a relatively minor role” in breaking this case, write Mr. Pilkington and Mr. Watt.

The point, say critics, is that the NSA may not need such powerfully intrusive weapons to produce the results the agency showcases. Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who received Edward Snowden’s leaks, tweeted Tuesday that “When officials claim that ‘Bulk Surveillance Program X’ stopped Terror plots, must ask: could you have stopped it with narrower program?”

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