Journalism in the Public Interest

How the NSA’s Claim on Thwarted Terrorist Plots Has Spread

In the months since revelations about NSA surveillance began, intelligence officials and members of Congress have claimed that the agency's efforts have thwarted 54 terrorist attacks. But a review of official statements shows the NSA has been inconsistent about how many plots have actually been thwarted and what the role the spying programs played. | Related article »

Inconsistent Statements on How Effective Surveillance Has Been

“Contributed to Our Understanding”

In speeches, television appearances and his testimony to Congress, NSA chief Keith Alexander has been relatively consistent about what the NSA’s surveillance programs have accomplished. They “contributed to our understanding” of 42 terror plots and 12 cases of material support to terrorism — what Alexander has referred to as “54 different terrorist-related activities.”

“Thwarted 54 Terrorist Plots”

But an NSA slideshow that bears Alexander’s name credited the NSA’s spying with foiling 54 terror plots or attacks — a much different claim that “contributing to our understanding” of 54 terror events. At least six members of Congress, the House Intelligence Committee website, three television networks, and the New York Times have made similar statements, as has President Obama.


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Photos of Keith Alexander, Barack Obama, Jim Langevin, John Inglis, Diane Feinstein and Jane Harman from Getty Images. Photo of Lynn Westmoreland from the AP. Photo of Timonthy Edgar by Peter Goldberg and used with permission from Brown University. Photo of Ronald Kessler by Gage Skidmore on Flickr. Photo of Joe Heck by republicancongress on Flickr.

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