WASHINGTON — The director of the National Security Agency told Congress on Wednesday that "dozens" of terrorism threats had been halted by the agency's huge database of the logs of nearly every domestic phone call made by Americans.
Gen. Keith B. Alexander, who heads both the NSA and U.S. Cyber Command, which runs the military's offensive and defensive use of cyber weapons, told skeptical members of the Senate Appropriations Committee that his agency was doing exactly what Congress authorized after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
He said the agency "takes great pride in protecting this nation and our civil liberties and privacy" under the oversight of Congress and the courts.
"We aren't trying to hide it," he said. "We're trying to protect America. This is what our nation expects our government to do for us."
Half a world away, Edward Snowden, the former contractor who fled to Hong Kong and leaked documents about the programs, said he would fight any U.S. attempts to extradite him. American law enforcement officials are building a case against him but have yet to bring charges.
"I am not here to hide from justice; I am here to reveal criminality," Snowden said of the surveillance programs in an interview with the South China Morning Post.
He also said the United States' surveillance program had gained access to hundreds of computers in Hong Kong and China since 2009. "We hack network backbones — like huge Internet routers, basically — that give us access to the communications of hundreds of thousands of computers without having to hack every single one," the newspaper quoted him as saying.
His claims could not be immediately verified.
The newspaper did not say where in Hong Kong Snowden has been hiding since he checked out of a hotel early Monday afternoon. The Guardian newspaper of Britain, with which Snowden has shared a series of documents, reported Wednesday morning that he had moved to a safe house, but did not provide details.
Snowden's decision to stay in Hong Kong came as local government lawyers, working with U.S. government lawyers, had identified several dozen offenses with which Snowden could be charged under both Hong Kong and U.S. laws, the New York Times reported, citing a person with knowledge of the Hong Kong government's work on the case said.
The United States and Hong Kong operate under a 1996 bilateral extradition agreement, and any attempt by the United States to extradite Snowden would have to cite offenses that violate the laws in both countries, are punishable by jail terms of a year or more and meet the terms of that agreement.
In his spirited exchanges with committee members, notably Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., Alexander said he was seeking to declassify many details about the program now that they have been leaked by Snowden.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who is chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, disclosed that the phone records are eventually destroyed. She said that she planned to hold a classified hearing on the program today. But at the Wednesday hearing, where testimony about the government's planned $13 billion spending on cybersecurity was largely swept aside for a discussion of the surveillance program, Feinstein also revealed that investigators have used the database for purposes beyond countering terrorism, suggesting it might have also been employed in slowing Iran's nuclear program.
In a robust defense of the phone program, Alexander said that it had been critical in helping to prevent "dozens of terrorist attacks" both in the United States and abroad and that the intelligence community was considering declassifying examples to better explain the program. He did not clarify whether the records used in such investigations would have been available through individual subpoenas without the database. He also later said the phone log database was used in conjunction with other programs.
In his testimony, Alexander said he had "grave concerns" about how Snowden had access to such a wide range of top-secret information. He said the entire intelligence community was looking at the security of its networks — something other officials vowed to do after the WikiLeaks disclosures three years ago.