(Reuters) WASHINGTON - U.S. intelligence officials on Tuesday identified two of the more than 50 classified cases in which they say National Security Agency eavesdropping helped thwart terrorist plots including a planned attack on the New York Stock Exchange.
The other, a San Diego money laundering investigation tied to financing for a Somali militia, is among the 27 cases cited in a Reuters report Tuesday in which the U.S. government filed public notice that it used a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant.
A defense lawyer involved in both cases criticized the government claims, suggesting the allegations were overblown.
General Keith Alexander, director of the NSA, told Congress that he planned to provide classified details on 50 such cases to the Intelligence Committee by Wednesday.
In the NYSE case, Deputy FBI Director Sean Joyce told Congress that as the NSA monitored a “known extremist in Yemen,” the agency learned that the suspect was contacting Khalid Ouazzani, a Kansas City used-auto parts businessman. Joyce did not cite dates, but court records place the time between 2008 and 2010.
With that information, Joyce said, the FBI obtained a more tightly targeted Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant and was “able to detect a nascent plot to bomb the New York Stock Exchange.” Joyce added that Ouazzani “had been providing information and support to this plot” but provided no further details.
Two law enforcement sources said that information led to the 2010 arrest of a New York accountant, Sabirhan Hasanoff, a dual U.S. and Australian citizen. Hasanoff pleaded guilty to providing material support to al-Qaeda in connection with the NYSE plot.
Working with an unidentified American and two co-conspirators in Yemen, Hasanoff conducted surveillance of the stock exchange in 2008 as a potential attack site, prosecutors said.
An NYSE spokesman declined to comment. Ouazzani’s lawyer, Robin Fowler, said they had no immediate comment.
Joshua Dratel, a New York defense lawyer who represented both Hasanoff and the lead defendant in the San Diego case, criticized government assertions about the value of NSA surveillance.
“It really is outrageous if this is how they justify their eavesdropping,” Dratel told Reuters.
He said from his perspective, “there was no plot” in the Hasanoff case to attack the New York Stock Exchange.
Instead, he said, his client, through an intermediary, had forwarded to persons overseas information he got from public sources, including Google, and the overseas persons had replied that the information was worthless and “silly.”
The public court file on Ouazzani does not mention a plot against the NYSE nor the use of a FISA warrant. The Hasanoff court file does not mention Ouazzani, but it does cite the use of classified evidence. Several records in both cases are sealed.
Ouazzani was arrested on February 8, 2010. He pleaded guilty three months later to bank fraud, money laundering and conspiracy to provide material support to al-Qaeda. He pleaded guilty to providing more than $23,000 to al-Qaeda in 2007 and 2008.
According to his plea agreement, Ouazzani discussed plans with unnamed others to aid al-Qaeda by fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq or Somalia. Ouazzani provided $6,000 to al-Qaeda, the pleading said, from profits related to sale of his auto parts business. In the plea document, Ouazzani also admitted that he pledged an oath to al-Qaeda.
According to the 2010 plea hearing transcript, Ouazzani, a naturalized U.S. citizen, said he was born in 1977, completed some college and worked as a sales manager.
Ouazzani’s sentencing, now set for July 25, has been delayed for nearly three years, a sign that his case is likely related to others. He faces a maximum prison term of 15 years.
Hasanoff is expected to be sentenced by July. The U.S. government has sought a 20-year sentence.
In the San Diego case, four defendants were charged in 2010 with conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists - taxi drivers Basaaly Saeed Moalin and Ahmed Nasir Taalil Mohamud, Mohamed Mohamud who worked at a money transmitting business and Issa Doreh, a local imam.
Shortly after the indictment, prosecutors filed a brief motion disclosing that the government intended to use FISA evidence “derived from electronic surveillance.” A subsequent similar motion disclosed FISA searches.
According to a Reuters nationwide review of court records, this case is one of 27 since 2007 in which prosecutors filed such a notice disclosing the use of FISA evidence.
At the San Diego trial in February, a jury found that the four provided money to al Shabaab, a Somali militia designated by the United States as a terrorist organization. Dozens of recorded calls were played for the jury, including conversations between Moalin and Aden Hashi Ayrow, an al Shabaab leader, prosecutors said. The U.S. government said Ayrow died in a 2008 drone attack.
Moalin, Mohamed Mohamud and Doreh are scheduled for sentencing on June 26. Ahmed Nasir Taalil Mohamud is scheduled for sentencing on September 30.
Dratel, who represents Moalin, said that in the San Diego case, the government had kept information about NSA eavesdropping “secret to protect their secret, illegal operations” and that, based on recent revelations about NSA, defense lawyers were likely to file new motions in the case before sentencing.
Reporting by John Shiffman and Mark Hosenball; Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Nate Raymond; Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson and Cynthia Osterman