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June 18th, 2013
06:50 PM ET

House Democrat defends NSA programs

President Barack Obama and top intelligence officials - their hands forced by leaks from NSA intelligence contractor Edward Snowden - have been trying to justify the vast National Security Agency spying programs.

The latest attempt came at a House Intelligence Committee hearing Tuesday, where top law enforcement officials made their case.

"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 the potential terrorist events over 50 times since 9/11," NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander said.

Ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee Dutch Ruppersberger also defended the NSA programs.

"If you want to find a needle in a haystack, which is a lot of what our intelligence community does, you need the haystack.  And the providers who have this information, they keep it only for a certain period of time.  So in order for us to be involved and stop these attacks, we need to move right away," Ruppersberger told CNN.

"This is a program that works.  It's a program that does not listen to your conversation.  It's a program that is overseen by the courts.  And our role in government is to protect the country from these terrorist attacks," said Ruppersberger.

For our full interview with Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, check out the video above.

Of the 50 threats mentioned by Alexander, FBI deputy director Sean Joyce listed four terror events that he said were disrupted either by the collection of Americans' phone records, or monitoring foreign online activity.

Some were known, others were not, and still others are mostly unknown.

Here are the four cases the government claims were aided by the surveillance programs:

One: Najibullah Zazi's plot to bomb the New York subway system in 2009. General Alexander already gave this example last week. Joyce said they caught a terrorist in Pakistan sending e-mails to Zazi - and they used phone record collections to find a co-conspirator.

Two: A previously undisclosed plot to bomb the New York Stock Exchange involving Khalid Ouazzani, who was in the U.S., which the FBI found out about through online communication with a known extremist in Yemen. Ouazzani pleaded guilty to providing financial assistance to al Qaeda in 2010. The stock exchange is not commenting on this supposed plot. Ouazzani's lawyer told CNN he had nothing to do with any plot to blow up the New York Stock Exchange.

Three: The plot to bomb a Danish newspaper for publishing a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad, involving David Headley, a U.S. citizen, which the FBI said it found out about through online contact with an al Qaeda-linked terrorist. Headley is serving 35 years in prison for that, and for helping plan the Mumbai attacks in 2008.

Four: In his last example, Joyce appeared to be referring to the FBI using phone record collections to catch Basaaly Saeed Moalin in San Diego. He was convicted earlier this year of sending money to al Shabaab, an al Qaeda-linked group in Somalia, along with three others.

How hard did the committee question these officials? Well, the committee did give the hearing an explicit title, "How Disclosed NSA Programs Protect Americans and Why Disclosure Aids Our Adversaries."

One issue that came up repeatedly was how the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court - or FISA court - determines which of these domestic phone records and foreign online records can actually be used in an investigation - specifically whether it's just a "rubber stamp" for Obama.

"No way are they rubber stamped," Ruppersberger told CNN. "These are judges that are overseeing this process to make sure it's legal, that the intelligence community and the administration are following the rules and the laws. And that's the purpose of where the courts are."

One of the reasons the court approves so many of the requests, said Ruppersberger, "is that the courts have a staff and the intelligence community goes to the staff, gives them the information ahead of time. And then they come back and say, well, the court has a problem with this issue or that issue, so that when they eventually come to the court, most of those issues have been resolved and looked at."

Obama faced a tougher audience in a rare 45-minute interview he gave to PBS's Charlie Rose. The president has watched his approval rating plummet this month. He defended these NSA programs, especially phone data mining.

"What happens is that the FBI - if, in fact, it now wants to get content; if, in fact, it wants to start tapping that phone - it's got to go to the FISA court with probable cause and ask for a warrant," Obama told PBS.

Asked if the FISA court has turned down any request, Obama said "the number of requests are surprisingly small," adding that "folks don't go with a query unless they've got a pretty good suspicion."

The president repeated again that the process "is transparent. That's why we set up the FISA court."

Transparent is an interesting word to describe the FISA court, which operates with total secrecy. The FISA court is also not a court in the way most Americans understand. There are not two sides to every case, and there is no one present to challenge what the government claims before the FISA court.

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