WASHINGTON — Once-secret surveillance programs were crucial in enabling the U.S. government to thwart dozens of terrorist attacks, says the director of the National Security Agency in a forceful defense of spy operations that have stirred fears of government snooping and violations of privacy rights.
Army Gen. Keith Alexander, in his first congressional testimony since disclosure of the secretive programs, offered few details on Wednesday about the disrupted terror plots. But he asserted that the two government programs that have collected millions of telephone records and kept tabs on Internet activity were imperative in the terror fight.
The director of national intelligence has declassified some details on two thwarted attacks — Najibullah Zazi’s foiled plot to bomb the New York subways and the case of David Coleman Headley, a Pakistani-American who used his U.S. passport to travel frequently to India, where he allegedly scouted out venues for terror attacks on behalf of the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist organization.
Alexander said he is pressing for the intelligence community to provide details on the other plots.
“I do think it’s important that we get this right and I want the American people to know that we’re trying to be transparent here, protect civil liberties and privacy but also the security of this country,” Alexander told a Senate panel.
He described the steps the government takes once it suspects a terrorist organization is about to act — all within the laws approved by Congress and under stringent oversight from the courts. He said the programs led to “disrupting or contributing to the disruption of terrorist attacks,” without offering specifics.
Half a world away, Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old former contractor who fled to Hong Kong and leaked documents about the programs, said he would fight any U.S. attempts to extradite him. American law enforcement officials are building a case against him but have yet to bring charges.
“I am not here to hide from justice; I am here to reveal criminality,” Snowden said of the surveillance programs in an interview with the South China Morning Post.
In plain-spoken, measured tones, Alexander answered senators’ questions in an open session and promised to provide additional information to the Senate Intelligence Committee in closed session today.
But he also warned that revelations about the secret programs have eroded agency capabilities and, as a result, the U.S. and its allies won’t be as safe as they were two weeks ago.
“Some of these are still going to be classified and should be, because if we tell the terrorists every way that we’re going to track them, they will get through and Americans will die,” he said, adding that he would rather be criticized by people who think he’s hiding something “than jeopardize the security of this country.”
Alexander said he was seriously concerned that Snowden, a former employee with government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, had access to key parts of the NSA network, a development that demands a closer examination of how well the agency oversees contract employees.
Alexander said Snowden was a system administrator who didn’t have visibility into the whole NSA network but could access key portions of it.
The director was questioned at length by senators seeking information on exactly how much data the NSA gathers through programs to collect millions of telephone records and keep tabs on Internet activity as well as the legal backing for the activities.
Members of the House and Senate Intelligence panels and key leaders have been briefed on the programs and have expressed their support for the operations as a valid tool in the terrorism fight.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Wednesday that the programs are constitutional and “very important to the security of the American people and they help us in a big way to address the terrorist threat that does in fact remain.”
But rank-and-file lawmakers who haven’t been privy to the details expressed concerns and bewilderment, reflected in the comments of several senators at the hearing and one exchange between Republican Sen. Mike Johanns and Alexander.
Johanns asked the NSA director whether the government could check to see what an individual is searching for through Google, or sending in email.
Alexander said once an individual has been identified, the issue is referred to the FBI.
“The FBI will then look at that and say what more do we need to now look at that individual themselves. So there are issues and things that they would then look at. It’s passed to them,” Alexander said.
“So the answer to the question is yes,” Johanns said.
“Yes, you could. I mean, you can get a court order to do that,” Alexander said.
The Nebraska lawmaker said it was imperative for the government to get information about the programs to the American people “because right now we’re all getting bombarded with questions that many of us at the rank-and-file level in the Senate cannot answer.”
Congressional leaders and intelligence committee members have been routinely briefed about the spy programs, officials said, and Congress has at least twice renewed laws approving them. But the disclosure of their sheer scope stunned some lawmakers, shocked allies from nations with strict privacy protections and emboldened civil liberties advocates who long have accused the government of being too invasive in the name of national security.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said he planned today to announce “legal action against government surveillance and the National Security Agency’s overreach of power,” his political office said.
Paul told “Fox News Sunday” that he would ask “all the Internet providers and all of the phone companies” and their customers to join a class-action lawsuit against surveillance techniques that he called “an extraordinary invasion of privacy.”
Recent polling on the issue found Americans troubled by the intrusion but perhaps willing to give the government even more leeway in its efforts to fight terrorism.
A poll by CBS News and The New York Times found that 58 percent disapprove of the government collecting phone records of all Americans. Yet it also found that 59 percent think the government has struck the right balance or not gone far enough.
Associated Press writers Lara Jakes, Kimberly Dozier, Frederic Frommer, Alan Fram, Andrew Miga and Pete Yost contributed to this report.