HERSHEY, United States - A recently uncovered jihadist-inspired plot by a young American to massacre lawmakers in the US Capitol was discovered thanks to the government's controversial surveillance programs, House Speaker John Boehner claimed Thursday.
"We would never have known about this had it not been for the FISA programme and our ability to collect information on people who pose an imminent threat," Boehner told reporters.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act allows for US agencies to conduct electronic espionage internationally as well as on Americans suspected of involvement in terror-related activities.
It has been embroiled in controversy following revelations in 2013 about the extent of US dragnet surveillance.
"Our government does not spy on Americans unless there are Americans who are doing things that frankly tip off our law enforcement officials to an imminent threat," Boehner said at a Republican retreat in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
"And it was our law enforcement officials and those programs that helped us stop this person before he committed a heinous crime in our nation's capital." In June 2013, former national security contractor Edward Snowden revealed the sweeping extent to which the National Security Agency scoops up telephone data on Americans and calls placed into and out of the United States, triggering surveillance reform efforts that continue to this day.
Critics have deemed the FISA law, amended after the September 11 attacks of 2001, too permissive.
Some of the law's most controversial elements expire in June, setting up an opportunity for Congress to amend, renew or repeal the legislation.
Boehner's remarks should buttress the arguments of some lawmakers opposed to any major overhaul of NSA operations.
On Wednesday, the Justice Department announced that Ohio man Christopher Cornell, 20, was arrested and charged with "attempting to kill officers and employees of the United States" and possessing a firearm to carry out violent acts.
According to the complaint, Cornell had opened a Twitter account under the pseudonym Raheel Mahrus Ubaydah, and posted messages supporting Islamic State militants.
Approached by an FBI employee from August 2014, Cornell told him that he "considered the members of Congress as enemies and that he intended to conduct on attack on the US Capitol," the complaint said.
The FBI said he planned to "build, plant and detonate pipe bombs at and near the US Capitol, then use firearms to shoot and kill employees and officials." The Capitol plot, as well as the indictment last week of a bartender who served Boehner drinks at his country club and who had threatened to kill him, has elevated security awareness for many in Washington.
Law enforcement "told us on day one it was the most highly targeted terrorist spot in the world, and we're seeing that play out," Congressman Jason Chaffetz told reporters.
Asked whether security should be tightened around the Capitol, Chaffetz said "it's a pretty tight ring already."