For nearly two weeks, officials defending NSA surveillance have stressed two main points: (1) it's legal; and (2) it's life-saving. The House Intelligence Committee heard quite a bit about the latter this morning.
The National Security Agency surveillance programs made public this month have helped foil more than 50 terrorist plots since Sept. 11, including one to blow up the New York Stock Exchange, top intelligence officials told Congress on Tuesday.
The officials appeared before the House Intelligence Committee and answered mostly friendly questions to defend the programs, which collect phone records inside the United States and monitor Internet communications overseas.
"I would much rather be here today debating this point than trying to explain how we failed to prevent another 9/11," said Gen. Keith Alexander, the NSA director.
Though Alexander and the FBI's deputy director, Sean Joyce, avoided details, they insisted that NSA surveillance not only prevented more than 50 post-9/11 terrorist "events," but also thwarted at least 10 "homeland-based threats."
Joyce specifically referenced a Kansas City man who intended to attack the New York Stock Exchange and a San Diego man who intended to finance terrorism in Somalia, both of whom saw their plans derailed thanks to NSA surveillance.
The problem, of course, is that all of the obvious questions are legitimate, but the answers are classified. Could these plots have been thwarted without the controversial surveillance programs? Were the threats aspirational or near execution? Without more information, those of us without access to classified materials just don't know -- and we probably never will.