NSA probed fewer than 300 phone numbers in 2012 -- report

Unclassified intelligence document says data obtained helped thwart terrorist plots in more than 20 countries.

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The U.S. government searched for detailed information on calls involving fewer than 300 phone numbers last year, according to an unclassified document circulated Saturday.

The paper said such searches -- part of two controversial U.S. intelligence gathering programs -- led to two men allegedly plotting to attack New York City's subway system, Reuters reported. The data, which the Associated Press reported is destroyed every five years, thwarted terrorist plots in the U.S. and more than 20 other countries.

The document, which has reportedly been circulating within the government by intelligence agencies, is an apparent attempt by the Obama administration to rebut accusations that it went too far in its surveillance activities. The administration had admitted the National Security Agency collects millions of records each year but insists that it is legal.

U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, explained how the program worked without violating individuals' civil rights.

"We take the business records by a court order, and it's just phone numbers -- no names, no addresses -- put it in a lock box," Rogers told CBS News' "Face The Nation." "And if they get a foreign terrorist overseas that's dialing in to the United Sates, they take that phone number... they plug it into this big pile, if you will, of just phone numbers -- it's like a phonebook without any names and any addresses with it -- to see if there's a connection, a foreign terrorist connection to the United States."

"When a number comes out of that lock box, it's just a phone number -- no names, no addresses," he continued. "If they think that's relevant to their counterterrorism investigation, they give that to the FBI. Then upon the FBI has to go out and meet all the legal standards to even get whose phone number that is."

Edward Snowden, a former NSA infrastructure analyst who leaked classified documents to the Guardian, said in a video interview that, while not all NSA analysts had this ability, he could from Hawaii "wiretap anyone from you or your accountant to a federal judge to even the president."

President Obama has said he does not believe any privacy violations occurred and plans to make clear that sentiment "in the days ahead," White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said Sunday on "Face The Nation."