Director of the National Security Agency U.S. Army General Keith Alexander testifies before a U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence hearing
Director of the National Security Agency U.S. Army General Keith Alexander testifies before a U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on recently disclosed NSA surveillance programs, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington June 18, 2013. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters) (JONATHAN ERNST)

The head of the National Security Agency said U.S. surveillance programs had helped disrupt more than 50 possible attacks since September 11, 2001, as sympathetic members of Congress also defended the use of the top-secret spying operations.

In the first hearing dedicated to the programs since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden exposed them earlier this month, members of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee showed little will on Tuesday to pursue significant reforms.

Instead, both U.S. officials and lawmakers spent hours publicly justifying the phone and Internet monitoring programs as vital security tools and criticized Snowden's decision to leak documents about them to media outlets.

General Keith Alexander, the head of the NSA, said Snowden's leaks had inflicted "irreversible and significant" damage on national security.

"I believe it will hurt us and our allies," Alexander told the House intelligence panel, which oversees the vast surveillance efforts.

Snowden's disclosures have ignited a political furor over the balance between privacy rights and national security, but President Barack Obama and congressional leaders in both parties have backed the programs and no significant effort has emerged to roll them back.

While critics have blasted the surveillance as government overreach without enough independent oversight, the proposed legislative remedies discussed so far have focused on tightening the rules for independent contractors and making the secret court that approves warrants for surveillance more transparent.


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Alexander told the panel the monitoring was not "some rogue operation," and defended it as legal, closely supervised and crucial to defending Americans.

"I would much rather be here today debating this point than trying to explain how we failed to prevent another 9/11," Alexander told the committee in his second public appearance before Congress since the programs were exposed.

"In recent years these programs, together with other intelligence, have protected the U.S. and our allies from terrorist threats across the globe to include helping prevent ... potential terrorist events over 50 times since 9/11," he said.

BOMB ATTACKS THWARTED

Alexander promised to give lawmakers classified details of all of the foiled incidents within 24 hours.

Sean Joyce, deputy FBI director, offered information on two of the cases - a plot to bomb the New York Stock Exchange and a conspiracy to give money to a Somali militia designated by the United States as a terrorist group.

Officials had revealed last week two other such potential attacks: a 2009 plan to bomb a Danish newspaper that had published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad and a plot by Islamist militants to bomb the New York subway the same year.

Members of the intelligence committee said they were holding the hearing to set the record straight about how the programs operated and their importance for national security.

Representative Dutch Ruppersberger, the top Democrat on the committee, said the leaks "put our country and our allies in danger by giving the terrorists a really good look at the playbook that we use to protect our country. The terrorists now know many of our sources and methods."

Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, a Republican, defended the NSA. "People at the NSA in particular have heard a constant public drumbeat about a laundry list of nefarious things they are alleged to be doing to spy on Americans - all of them wrong," he said.

Snowden, who worked at an NSA facility in Hawaii through a contract with Booz Allen Hamilton, defended his actions in an Internet chat on Monday and vowed to release more details on the extent of the agency's access.

Snowden is believed to still be hiding in Hong Kong as the U.S. Justice Department conducts a criminal investigation into the leaks.

Asked what was next for Snowden, Joyce gave a one-word response: "Justice."

Alexander said he had "significant concerns" about how a low-level contractor like Snowden could gain access to so much information and said it was part of the FBI's investigation. "We do have significant concerns in this area and it is something that we need to look at," he said.

SMALL REFORMS

A handful of lawmakers have urged their colleagues to rein in the surveillance programs, but they do not appear to be in the majority.

"When all the dust settles we're likely to maintain the status quo ... there doesn't appear to be a big coalition wanting to change things," said Darrell West, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution.

Democratic Senator Mark Udall of Colorado, a long-time critic of secret spying programs, has called for reopening the Patriot Act, the post-September 11, 2001, law that gave intelligence agencies broader surveillance powers.

Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, has called for Americans to bring a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. government.

But the main decision-makers on intelligence matters have spent more time defending the programs than talking reform. And the reforms they have discussed have not been sweeping.

Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said last week that Congress would consider legislation to limit government contractors' access to certain classified information. However, industry executives and some corners of the intelligence community are already pushing back against such a move.

Obama, meanwhile, told PBS's "Charlie Rose" show that he will meet with a privacy and civil liberties oversight board. He has also sought to ease concerns about the scope of the surveillance programs.

"What I can say unequivocally is that if you are a U.S. person, the NSA cannot listen to your telephone calls, and the NSA cannot target your emails ... and have not," Obama said on Monday's program.

Google Inc said on Tuesday it has asked the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to allow it to publish aggregate numbers of national security requests separately from criminal requests.

Microsoft Corp, Facebook Inc and Apple Inc, released limited information about the number of surveillance requests they receive under an agreement struck with the U.S. government last week.

Under that agreement, the companies were only allowed to disclose aggregate requests for data made by government agencies - without showing the split between surveillance and criminal requests - and only for a six-month period.

(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Susan Heavey; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Karey Van Hall and Tim Dobbyn)