Hawks use terror threat to defend NSA surveillance

Lawmakers used the government's early warning of a terrorist threat to defend the National Security Agency's controversial surveillance programs on Sunday, saying the threat -- which some have described as among the most serious since 9/11 -- might not have been detected without the government's aggressive intelligence-gathering tools.

Sources tell CBS News senior investigative producer Pat Milton that intelligence officials learned about the threat, in part, as a result of "intercepts" of terrorist chatter that indicate that the operation is in "the final stages" and "it could be big."

Skeptics of the government's surveillance authority, however, said there's no clear indication that the NSA programs under scrutiny contributed any information about the particulars of this plot, which compelled the State Department to issue a travel alert and close 22 embassies and consulates across the Middle East and North Africa on Sunday.

For some, though, the plot is proof-positive of the need to preserve the embattled surveillance programs. "The NSA program is proving its worth yet again," declared Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., on CNN. The hawkish Republican said that al Qaeda is "on the rise" across the Middle East and North Africa, warning that America risks another 9/11 by disengaging.

"To the members of Congress who want to reform the NSA program -- great," he said. "But if you want to gut it, you make us much less safe, and you're putting our nation at risk. We need to have policies in place that can deal with the threats that exist, and they are real, and they are growing."

Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., called the threat warning a "wake up call," strongly rebutting those who have suggested that the government is hyping the terrorist threat to distract from the controversy engendered by its spying programs.

"It's absolutely crazy to say there's any conspiracy here," he said on ABC's "This Week." In light of the intelligence reports he and other lawmakers have received, King said, "The government would have been totally negligent if it did not take the actions taken.

"Whether or not there was any controversy over the NSA at all," he said, "these actions would have been taken."

Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., told NBC's "Meet the Press" that the terrorist "chatter" picked up by intelligence officials was "very reminiscent of what we saw pre-9/11."

And the NSA programs, of which Chambliss has been a staunch defender, "allow us to have the ability to gather this chatter," he said. "If we did not have these programs then we simply wouldn't be able to listen in on the bad guys."

Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said on ABC's "This Week" that the threat is "very credible" and that it was "based on intelligence."

"The good news is we picked up the intelligence," he said, "And that's what we do. That's what the NSA does."

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said on CBS' "Face the Nation" that the early warning shows that "security is very, very important and that the agencies in charge are darned good."

"They're able to listen in and hear what's going on," he explained. "They all have disrupted many, many, many terrorists plots and let's hope they're disrupting this one, as well."

"Having said that," he added, "There's always a balance between security and liberty and there's always a time to reexamine that."

Some lawmakers, however, have pushed for far more than a reexamination, arguing that the programs are flatly unconstitutional and should be severely restricted if not disbanded altogether. These opponents generally recognized the serious nature of the recent threat warnings but were skeptical that the spying program played any instrumental role in bringing the plot to the attention of U.S. officials.

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., agreed that the threat is serious and commended America's heightened security posture, but when he was asked whether the threat has caused him to revisit his opposition to the government's surveillance programs, he said it hasn't.

"I think you have to be very careful about how much you represent that any particular program has contributed to our security," he said on CNN, "And I know Senator Graham said that this shows that we need to continue these particular programs, but if you look at the one that's most at issue here, that's the bulk metadata program, there's no indication, unless I'm proved wrong later that that program which collects vast amounts of domestic data, domestic telephony data, contributed to information about this particular plot."

Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., the author of an amendment defeated last week that would have severely limited the scope of the NSA's surveillance authority, said on "Fox News Sunday" that recent terror threats prove the need to safeguard -- not infringe upon -- Americans' privacy rights.

"It's precisely because we live in this dangerous world that we need protections like the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution," he said. "The framers of the Constitution put it in place precisely because they were worried you'd have national security justifications for violating people's rights."

  • Jake Miller

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