Ultimately, he said, “lives have been saved” because of the cautious execution of the surveillance systems. “We know of at least 50 threats that have been averted” not just in the United States, but in countries around the world, including Germany. That number, which the administration has been using in recent days to defend its actions, includes plots thwarted by PRISM and by the National Security Agency’s scrutiny of phone metadata.Among the specific foiled plots officials have talked about, none have included plots developed to the point where lives were actually saved, where a concrete plot to kill had been stopped. The New York Times Charlie Savage writes about those interventions in his report on Tuesday's House Intelligence Committee hearing.
One case involved a group of men in San Diego convicted of sending money to an extremist group in Somalia. The other was presented as a nascent plan to bomb the New York Stock Exchange, although its participants were not charged with any such plot. Both were described by Sean Joyce, deputy director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, at a rare public oversight hearing by the House Intelligence Committee. [...]The New York City subway plot, however, was thwarted by "old-fashioned police work" rather than dragnet electronic surveillance. That's according to public documents that show the tip-off came from British authorities who had arrested several suspected terrorists. They found the connection to American Najibullah Zazi, the would-be bomber, through those arrests, and through email correspondence between Zazi and his al Qaeda handler. The emails were targeted, though, by intelligence work, not by finding this needle in the haystack of swept-up data.
As an example of how the domestic calling log database has been used, Mr. Joyce cited the case of several men convicted by a jury in February of raising and sending about $8,500 to Al Shabab, a terrorist group in Somalia. The N.S.A. had flagged the calling activities of one of the men as suspicious, he said. [...]
Monitoring a terrorist in Yemen, the N.S.A. discovered that he was talking to a man named Khalid Ouazzani in Kansas City, Mo. After applying for a separate warrant for Mr. Ouazzani’s communications, they identified two additional conspirators and discovered they were “in the very initial stages” of the stock exchange bomb plot, he said. [...]
However, Joshua L. Dratel, a lawyer for Mr. Hasanoff, called Mr. Joyce’s portrayal “astonishing” because none of the defendants was charged with the stock exchange allegation and there was no jury trial in any of the cases. Mr. Joyce also invoked two cases officials have previously linked to surveillance conducted under the FISA Amendments Act — a plot to bomb the New York City subway and the discovery that David Headley, a Chicago man, was working on a plot to bomb a Danish newspaper that published cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad.
As far as David Headley is concerned, the DEA informant was caught before the Danish newspaper bomb plot could be carried out, but not before 168 people died in attacks he helped plot in Mumbai, in 2008. So that could be called a limited success, at best.
So far, the foiled plots that officials are talking about are a bit dubious, and the assertion that lives have been saved isn't proven by them. This would be just one issue in which Congress could start asking those questions the American public wants answered.