WASHINGTON — Top U.S. intelligence officials said Saturday that information gleaned from two data-collection programs run by the National Security Agency (NSA) thwarted potential terrorist plots in the U.S. and more than 20 other countries — and that gathered data is destroyed every five years.
Last year, fewer than 300 phone numbers were checked against the database of millions of U.S. phone records gathered daily by the NSA in one of the programs, the intelligence officials said in arguing that the programs are far less sweeping than their detractors allege.
No other new details about the plots or the countries involved were part of the newly declassified information released to Congress on Saturday and made public by the Senate Intelligence Committee. Intelligence officials said they are working to declassify the dozens of plots NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander said were disrupted, to show Americans the value of the programs, but they want to make sure they don’t inadvertently reveal parts of the U.S. counterterrorism playbook in the process.
The release of information follows a bruising week for U.S. intelligence officials who testified on Capitol Hill, defending programs revealed by a series of media stories in The Guardian and The Washington Post newspapers, leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who remains in hiding in Hong Kong.
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The disclosures have sparked debate and legal action against the Obama administration by privacy activists who say the data collection goes far beyond what was intended when expanded counterterrorism measures were authorized by Congress after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Intelligence officials said Saturday that both NSA programs are reviewed every 90 days by the secret court authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA. Under the program, the records, showing things such as time and length of call, can only be examined for suspected connections to terrorism, they said.
The officials offered more detail on how the phone records program helped the NSA stop a 2009 al-Qaida plot to blow up New York City subways. They say the program helped them track a co-conspirator of al-Qaida operative Najibullah Zazi.
The new details were released less than 24 hours after Facebook and Microsoft representatives said national-security officials had given the companies permission to make new, but limited, revelations about government orders to turn over user data.
Ted Ullyot, Facebook’s general counsel, said Facebook received between 9,000 and 10,000 government requests from all government entities from local to federal in the last six months of 2012, on topics including missing-child investigations, fugitive tracking and terrorist threats. The requests involved the accounts of between 18,000 and 19,000 Facebook users.
Microsoft released similar numbers for the same period. “We continue to believe that what we are permitted to publish continues to fall short of what is needed to help the community understand and debate these issues,” John Frank, Microsoft’s vice president and deputy general counsel said. He said Microsoft received between 6,000 and 7,000 criminal and national-security warrants, subpoenas and orders affecting between 31,000 and 32,000 accounts. Google did not release its numbers, saying it was waiting to be able to reveal more meaningful information.