The Obama administration’s credibility on intelligence suffered another blow Wednesday as the chief of the National Security Agency admitted that officials put out numbers that vastly overstated the counterterrorism successes of the government’s warrantless bulk collection of all Americans’ phone records.
Pressed by the Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee at an oversight hearing, Gen. Keith B. Alexander admitted that the number of terrorist plots foiled by the NSA’s huge database of every phone call made in or to America was only one or perhaps two — far smaller than the 54 originally claimed by the administration.
Gen. Alexander and other intelligence chiefs have pleaded with lawmakers not to shut down the bulk collection of U.S. phone records despite growing unease about government overreach in the program, which was revealed in documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
“There is no evidence that [bulk] phone records collection helped to thwart dozens or even several terrorist plots,” Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and committee chairman, told Gen. Alexander of the 54 cases that administration officials — including the general himself — have cited as the fruit of the NSA’s domestic snooping.
“These weren’t all plots and they weren’t all foiled,” he said.
Mr. Leahy and Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican and author of the USA Patriot Act, which the government says allows bulk data collection, are working on a bill to roll back that authority.
In a summary they floated to colleagues Wednesday, the men said they would end bulk collection and require the NSA to show that the data it is seeking are relevant to an authorized investigation and involve a foreign agent.
The two lawmakers also proposed a special advocacy office with appellate powers to be part of the proceedings in the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and requiring the court to release secret opinions that lay out major interpretations of law.
Mr. Leahy, who has been a chief critic of the NSA, asked Gen. Alexander to admit that only 13 of the 54 cases had any connection at all to the U.S., “Would you agree with that, yes or no?”
“Yes,” Gen. Alexander replied in a departure from normal practice.
Administration officials giving testimony to Congress, even when asked to confine themselves to a simple yes or no, rarely do.
In response to a follow-up question, Gen. Alexander also acknowledged that only one or perhaps two of even those 13 cases had been foiled with help from the NSA’s vast phone records database. The database contains so-called metadata — the numbers dialing and dialed, time and duration of call — for every phone call made in or to the U.S.
Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper denied that the number of plots foiled should be the sole metric by which the success of the program is measured. “I think there’s another metric here that’s very important. … I would call it the ‘peace of mind’ metric.”
He explained that the agency also could use the database to satisfy itself that global terrorists abroad did not have connections or associates in the U.S., and that attackers like those at the Boston Marathon were not part of a wider international plot.
Gen. Alexander’s dramatic concession is the latest in a series of recent, or recently revealed, intelligence misstatements that have embarrassed the Obama administration.
⦁ National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said in September 2012 that the attack on a U.S. diplomatic post in Libya had grown spontaneously out of a demonstration against a U.S.-made anti-Islam video, despite intelligence reports that the attackers were heavily armed terrorists. That line was repeated by other administration officials.
⦁ Mr. Clapper told Congress under oath this year that U.S. intelligence agencies did not collect any kind of data about millions of Americans, before Mr. Snowden’s stolen documents revealed the metadata program.
⦁ In rulings declassified by the administration last month, the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court chastised the NSA for repeatedly, if inadvertently, misrepresenting how it was following court-imposed restrictions on the use of the metadata in 2009.
⦁ The Washington Times reported last month that during his 2012 re-election campaign, President Obama was being briefed that al Qaeda had metastasized, while he was telling voters it had been decimated.
The news was revealed on the day the administration filed court papers opposing a request from communications providers that they be allowed to tell the public how many and what types of government orders they received.
The authority used by the NSA to compel phone companies to hand over domestic phone metadata, conferred by Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, also gags the companies from even disclosing that they have received an order, and the Justice Department filing Wednesday cast into sharp relief officials’ claims at the hearing that the administration was aiming to be as transparent as possible.
Gen. Alexander told the hearing that his agency was “already, I think, in agreement on releasing the total number of orders or other [legal] process issued under various NSA security authorities … and the total number of targets affected by those orders.”
But in its court filing Wednesday, the Justice Department argued that allowing the companies to release detailed information about the secret orders “would be invaluable to our adversaries.”
The tension between Gen. Alexander’s statements at the hearing and the Justice Department’s court filing the same day highlights the steep hill the general and his colleagues have to climb to persuade many lawmakers to preserve the domestic phone records mass-collection program.
The “lack of information” about the scale of the program “frankly, scares people and causes distrust. It makes them distrust our government,” said Sen. Al Franken, Minnesota Democrat.
A number of senators made it clear at the hearing that they supported the domestic data gathering.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, baldly stated that the metadata program would have thwarted the Sept. 11 plot because at least one of the 19 hijackers was in telephone contact with a known terrorist facility in the Middle East.
The program is designed so that U.S. calls to or from foreign numbers associated with terrorist suspects can be found after the fact — and their contacts with other U.S. telephone numbers before and since can be logged.
“I am here to tell the American people,” the senator declaimed, that if the metadata program had been in place, “the 19 hijackers who were here in the country, most of them in illegal status, talking to people abroad, we would have known what they were up to.”
• Shaun Waterman can be reached at email@example.com.
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