NSA Director General Keith Alexander gave the impression at a Tuesday congressional hearing that the only thing standing between the U.S. people and 'terrorist' onslaught is secret spying.
As he shared a panel with top FBI and Justice Department officials, Alexander vigorously defended the agency's spying programs, insisting that controversial secret surveillance has warded off over 50 terrorist attacks internationally and 10 within the United States.
"I would much rather today be here to debate this point than try to explain why we failed to prevent another 9/11," Alexander declared.
Alexander insisted that the Agency's surveillance systems—which secretly gather phone data and monitor internet use—are "critical" to the protection of the United States.
He said spying thwarted an alleged planned bombing of the New York Stock Exchange by monitoring communication between Missouri-based Khalid Ouazzani and an individual in Yemen.
However, as The Guardian points out, Ouazzani has never been accused of the crime that NSA supposedly averted:
Ouazzani, however, was never convicted of plotting to bomb the stock exchange. Andrew Ames, a Justice Department spokesman, later clarified that he was convicted of "sending funds" to al-Qaida.
Other critics cast doubt on claims that the NSA's vast spying apparatus can bring about real safety, insisting that 'real safety' for everyone will come when the U.S. respects human rights at home and abroad.
Security officials number among the skeptics. As The Guardian reports:
Lawyers and intelligence experts with direct knowledge of two intercepted terrorist plots that the Obama administration says confirm the value of the NSA's vast data-mining activities have questioned whether the surveillance sweeps played a significant role
Tuesday's latest claims about averted attacks cannot be independently verified, especially given that the NSA has only provided partial information.
Others insist that, even if some attacks were diverted, this does not justify widescale violation of privacy rights.
Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald, who broke the NSA snooping story, blasted officials for playing into public fears to justify violation of privacy and skirt accountability in a June 10 interview on Democracy Now!:
This is just the same playbook that U.S. government officials have been using for the last five decades whenever anything gets done that brings small amounts of transparency to the bad conduct that they do in the dark. They immediately accuse those who brought that transparency of jeopardizing national security. They try and scare the American public into believing that they’ve been placed at risk and that the only way they can stay safe is to trust the people in power to do whatever it is they want to do without any kinds of constraints, accountability or light of any kind.
Officials tossed ad-hominem attacks at NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden at Tuesday's hearing, arguing that the secret spying program should have stayed in the shadows. Representative Mike Rogers argued, "It is at times like these where our enemies within become almost as damaging as our enemies on the outside."
Yet Snowden's supporters, who hail him as a hero, say that attacks on his character are weak attempts to divert public attention from outrage over revelations of mass spying.
Katrina vanden Heuvel argues in The Washington Post that Snowden's revelations unveil an overgrown security state, built in the name of fighting terror:
The “war on terrorism” has gone on for 12 years, and while President Obama says it must end sometime, there is no end in sight. Secret bureaucracies armed with secret powers and emboldened by the claim of defending the nation have proliferated and expanded. The surprise of legislators at the scope of NSA surveillance shows that checks and balances have broken down.