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Did the NSA Director Overstate Terror Plots Thwarted by Spy Program?


"...I may have that wrong..."

Shortly after leaks about the level of the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance activities, the government defended itself by touting a number of potential terror plots it said were thwarted by the secret program known as PRISM.

But now, some are saying that NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander overstated the number of times the program actively prevented terror activity.

keith alexander Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency, listens during a hearing of the Senate Judiciary on Capitol Hill October 2, 2013 in Washington, D.C. (AFP/Getty Images)

In June, just a couple of weeks after the first revelations about the NSA's domestic spy activity were published by the British Guardian newspaper as leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden, Alexander said about 50 terror plots were thwarted through information collected by the NSA.

Alexander subsequently gave a more specific number, saying 54 cases had been disrupted.

But later, when Alexander was asked by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) about how these numbers stacked up next to what NSA Deputy Director John Inglis told the Senate Judiciary Committee, it seems the director may have backpedaled.

CSO, an online publication geared toward security executives, pointed out the contradiction (emphasis added):

At the Black Hat security conference, General Alexander told attendees that 54 terror plots were stopped because of records collected under Sections 215 and 702, and of those 13 of them were in the U.S. Moreover, General Alexander noted that of the 13 plots halted in the U.S., 12 of them were directly linked to the intercept programs.

However, when questioned by Senator Leahy, General Alexander confirmed that only "one, perhaps two" terror plots were halted by business records collections.

Questioning General Alexander directly, Senator Leahy asked, "Would you agree that the 54 cases that keep getting cited by the administration were not all plots, and of the 54 only 13 had some nexus to the U.S.? Would you agree with that, yes or no?"

To this, General Alexander responded with the affirmative.


"He's right. I believe he said two, Chairman (Senator Leahy), I may have that wrong, but I think he said two," General Alexander responded. "And I'd like to point out that it could only have applied in 13 of the cases because of the 54 terrorist plots, or events, 13 occurred in the U.S."

nsa protest Protestors hold signs, and CodePink founder Medea Benjamin wears oversized sunglasses on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013, during a Senate Judiciary Committee oversight hearing on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act with National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander and National Security Agency Directory Gen. Keith Alexander. (AP)

An op-ed by Teun van Dogen, a national security expert, for Foreign Policy in Focus (via Truth-Out) said there is "no credible evidence" that the NSA's programs are thwarting terror plots.

"It is far from certain, however, that the NSA is getting its numbers right," van Dogen wrote.

Van Dogen went on to note how actions by law enforcement and more led to potential plots from being carried out.

"Admittedly we do not know how all terrorist plots have been detected. But going by what we do know, the conclusion is simple: terrorist plots have been foiled in all sorts of ways, few of which had anything to do with mass digital surveillance. True, in the case of the dismantlement of the Sauerland Cell in Germany in 2007, NSA information played a role. But whether the authorities got this information from 'digital dragnet surveillance' or from more individualized and targeted monitoring is hard to tell," van Dogen wrote.

Until evidence of the NSA's data collection program leading to information that prevents terrorist activity is given, van Dogen said, "the Obama administration is only eroding the trust of the citizens it is claiming to protect."

Even more recently, USA Today in an editorial called for proof of the program's "extraordinary value" before Americans "are forced" to make the choice between privacy and security.

It was announced last week that Alexander is expected to retire from the NSA in the spring, ending his eight-year tenure.

(H/T: PC World)



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