NSA director says surveillance helped stop 'dozens' of attacks

By John Whitesides and Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The head of the National Security Agency said on Wednesday that broad U.S. surveillance efforts had helped stop "dozens" of possible attacks, and the contractor who revealed details of the top-secret programs vowed to fight any effort to bring him back to the United States to face charges.

In his first public testimony since the surveillance was made public last week, General Keith Alexander defended the NSA's broad monitoring of phone and Internet data and said it served its purpose by helping disrupt potential attacks.

"It's dozens of terrorist events that these have helped prevent," the NSA director and head of U.S. Cyber Command told a U.S. Senate committee. "Both here and abroad, in disrupting, or contributing to the disruption of terrorist attacks."

Relying on documents supplied by Edward Snowden, a contract employee at the NSA, Britain's Guardian newspaper and the Washington Post revealed details last week of a vast U.S. government effort to monitor phone and Internet data at big companies such as Google Inc and Facebook Inc.

The revelations sparked a criminal investigation and an internal Obama administration review of the potential damage to national security, and created growing pressure from lawmakers and advocacy groups to impose tighter controls on domestic surveillance.

The controversy over the program also ignited a renewed debate about the balance between privacy rights and security concerns in the United States in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks. Alexander said the NSA operated with that balance in mind.

"I want the American people to know that we're trying to be transparent here and protect civil liberties and privacy but also the security of this country," he said at a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on the cybersecurity budget.

"I would rather take a public beating and people think I'm hiding something than jeopardize the security of this country," Alexander said.

Snowden, who traveled to Hong Kong before the program was made public, said in an interview published on Wednesday that he planned to stay in the former British colony and fight any effort to bring him back to the United States for criminal proceedings.

"I am not here to hide from justice. I am here to reveal criminality," Snowden told the South China Morning Post, an English-language newspaper in Hong Kong, in an interview published on Wednesday.

'STAY AND FIGHT'

"My intention is to ask the courts and people of Hong Kong to decide my fate," Snowden said. "I have had many opportunities to flee Hong Kong, but I would rather stay and fight the United States government in the courts, because I have faith in Hong Kong's rule of law."

Snowden, who had been working at an NSA facility as an employee of Booz Allen Hamilton, has drawn a mix of condemnation and praise for the revelations.

"I'm neither traitor nor hero. I'm an American," Snowden told the newspaper.

Snowden said the NSA had been hacking computers in Hong Kong and in mainland China since 2009, with targets including public officials, businesses and students in the city as well as the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

He counted more than 61,000 computer hacking operations globally, including hundreds of targets in Hong Kong and mainland China, the newspaper said.

"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," Snowden said.

The NSA declined to comment on Snowden's assertions.

Hong Kong has an extradition agreement with the United States that has been exercised on numerous occasions, but so far Snowden has not been publicly charged and the United States has not filed for his extradition.

But Snowden said he believed the United States was putting pressure on the Hong Kong government to extradite him.

"Unfortunately, the U.S. government is now bullying the Hong Kong government to prevent me from continuing my work," he said. "I do not currently feel safe due to the pressure the U.S. government is applying to Hong Kong, but I feel that Hong Kong itself has a strong civil tradition that whistleblowers should not fear."

The 29-year-old said he has not contacted his family or his girlfriend since he revealed himself as the source of the leaks earlier this week.

At the Washington hearing, senators wondered why Snowden, who had a spotty educational record and a relative lack of experience in the national security field, was able to gain a top-secret clearance and access to such sensitive information.

"I do have concerns about that," Alexander said. "In the IT area, some of these folks have tremendous skills to operate networks. He had great skills in this area."

(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Alina Selyukh and Deborah Charles; Editing by Karey Van Hall and Tim Dobbyn)