Mass Surveillance Proves Pointless

Never have so many Americans been brought under surveillance for such a meager payoff.

In times of war and national emergency, it's sometimes necessary to sacrifice civil liberties to secure vital gains in public safety. In those cases, we may have to accept a loss of privacy or freedom rather than invite mass slaughter of Americans.

The National Security Agency's domestic phone records collection is not one of those.

Never have so many Americans been brought under surveillance for such a meager payoff, actual or potential. Creating risks to privacy to save lives is one thing. Creating them to accomplish little or nothing is another.

That's why the controversy over President Barack Obama's proposed revision of this program, known as the Section 215 program, is largely political theater. The important question is not how to adjust it to "balance" security and privacy. It's whether the government should be doing this at all.

The administration has strained to give the impression that the program is essential to saving lives. NSA Director Keith Alexander said its surveillance programs have helped "prevent over 50 potential terrorist events."

That is true, just as it's true that, between us, Tom Brady and I have three Super Bowl rings. The NSA has unearthed a lot of valuable information that has foiled numerous attacks—just not through this program.

What is overlooked in the debate is that the administration has more or less admitted this point. U.S. District Judge Richard Leon, in a ruling last month against the NSA, noted that "the government does not cite a single instance in which analysis of the NSA's bulk metadata collection actually stopped an imminent attack, or otherwise aided the government in achieving any objective that was time-sensitive in nature." In seven years, not a single instance.

When Obama appointed a task force to assess these surveillance efforts, the members questioned NSA officials on that very matter. They learned, as they said in their report, that "there has been no instance in which NSA could say with confidence that the outcome would have been different without the section 215 telephony meta-data program."

Contrast this assessment with the task force's view of another mass surveillance program—which lets the NSA obtain not just records of calls, but the actual content of communications of foreigners outside of the U.S. This program, said the panel, "has clearly served an important function in helping the United States to uncover and prevent terrorist attacks both in the United States and around the world."

A new study by the New America Foundation, a centrist Washington think tank, notes that during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in October, Alexander said only one plot was prevented by the phone records collection—involving a San Diego cabdriver who provided funds to an al-Qaida group in Somalia.

This "plot" didn't amount to much. "The total amount going to a foreign terrorist organization was around $8,500 and the case involved no attack plot anywhere in the world," notes NAF.

Federal judge William Pauley III, however, sees enormous value in the NSA's incessant vacuuming of our phone records. Had this operation been going on before Sept. 11, 2001, he said in a December opinion, the NSA might have known that hijacker Khalid al-Mihdhar was in the country and been able to notify the FBI of his whereabouts. Obama used the same example in his speech Friday.

But the 9/11 Commission report made clear that the CIA had plenty of information that could have led the FBI to al-Mihdhar—and failed to pass on what it knew to the FBI. If information is not being shared among those pursuing terrorists, accumulating more information is not the answer.

The president is being accused of running up the white flag to al-Qaida for deciding to shift storage of these records to some non-government entity, while forcing NSA to get court approval before it conducts queries of specific phone numbers.

But transferring the records is a very modest step to prevent government abuse. Nor is requiring the FISA court to approve all queries—as Obama proposes, at least for the time being—a radical step. In fact, the FISA court imposed a similar requirement on NSA for several months in 2009 in response to the agency's failure to follow the existing rules.

President George W. Bush, who started this program, had the excuse that it might prove to be valuable. Obama has a mass of evidence to the contrary. But that's no reason to stop.

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  • Snark Plissken||

    President George W. Bush, who started this program, had the excuse that it might prove to be valuable. Obama has a mass of evidence to the contrary. But that's no reason to stop.

    When you've lost Steve Chapman...

  • CE||

    We lost him a long time ago.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Mass surveillance is pointless. Catholic terrorism only happens in Ireland, and they don't make their plans while attending church anyway. (Too busy with all that sitting, standing and kneeling.)

  • Pope Jimbo||

    That's what they were talking about? Shit I feel dumb now.

    I thought they were talking about bugging McDonald's to find out how the fatties planned on taking down O-care with their obesity related costs.

  • AdamJ||

    You win the internet for today.

  • ||

    "...it's sometimes necessary to sacrifice civil liberties to secure vital gains in public safety. In those cases, we may have to accept a loss of privacy or freedom rather than invite mass slaughter of Americans. "

    Bullshit. Pure bullshit.

  • wareagle||

    "...it's sometimes necessary to sacrifice civil liberties to secure vital gains in public safety."

    this statement would be a lot stronger if someone could point to whatever "vital gain" has been made. I don't see one; assuming facts not in evidence is a poor foundation for making a case.

  • ||

    Your point is true with regards to the current war on terror, but also in a more general sense historically. Indulging the paranoid has never worked.

  • Westmiller||

    I don't think the proposition is true in any context. The War on Terror (TM)can't possibly succeed - even if all civil rights are abolished - because terrorism IS an effort to produce self-destructive political behavior out of fear.

    When Americans lose their constitutional rights, the terrorist has succeeded, not failed.

  • prolefeed||

    In times of war and national emergency, writes Steve Chapman, politicians will try to convince you that it's sometimes necessary to sacrifice civil liberties the Bill of Rights to secure vital gains in public safety because, ala Rahm Emanuel, they want to avoid letting a perfectly good crisis go to waste.

    FTFY.

  • CE||

    So, trade the imaginary mass slaughter for the real mass surveillance? Got it.

  • Brandon Magoon||

    + this

  • CatoTheElder||

    Mass surveillance does have a point: it creates an environment wherein citizens must be more careful in what they say, even in what they think, and with whom they associate. It also assists law enforcement in the war on drugs via "parallel construction". One never knows whether an unguarded remark may trigger a visit from the DEA or the IRS. Mass surveillance is essential to the modern Orwellian state.

  • ||

    ^This^

  • sarcasmic||

    The Stasi are everywhere.

  • CE||

    Exactly. The point was never to "make us safe". The point was to find out what we're doing, and have info to use against political enemies, or anyone, when needed.

  • wareagle||

    Obama has no interest in reform or overhaul or whatever other euphemism is chosen. He talked because it's what he does. And he did it on a Friday because he knows that, historically, things that are released on Friday have all the import of the style of salt shaker used at the next state dinner.

    The candidate who campaigned against all things Bush in '08 has become the POTUS who not only adopted all those things, he even expanded a few. He might have earned some respect after all his rhetoric by simply saying "I have learned some things that were not known before; blah blah blah." Of course, he didn't and his dogwashers will never hold him to any standard.

    It's bullshit and the only way this story gets any real daylight is if the next prez is a Repub. Then, the media will suddenly care about pesky little things like civil liberties. Because rethuglicans.

  • AdamJ||

    "We cannot continue to kick the [budget] can down the road"

  • mike~acker||

    it's clearly not pointless: look what they spend on it.

    the thing everyone misses is: what are they looking for ?

    Obama explained it on NPR in reviewing his new policy " we like to know what is in the minds of the people "

    other reports indicate the intelligence is used to feed leads to police, who are then expected to obtain evidence to be used in court "by conventional means ". targets would include un-authorized drug dealers, tax cheats, ...dissidents

  • AdamJ||

    We spend a shit-ton on TSA and we know that it's worthless. Government grows because it can. It spends money because if it doesn't it would be out of a job.

  • AdamJ||

    We build jets that the military can't use. The list goes on and on. I'm not sure there's a slimy motive behind NSA. There may be, but it could also just be momentum.

  • Kyfho Myoba||

    "They" are counting on that (the momentum). Once you start an organization, it develops a life and goals of its own, and can be depended on to pursue and promote rationalizations for those goals. The "tinfoil hat" crowd perceives this nugget of common sense, most everyone else develops rationalizations to counter it.

  • Loki||

    ...it's sometimes necessary to sacrifice civil liberties to secure vital gains in public safety.
    ...
    The National Security Agency's domestic phone records collection is not one of those.
    ...
    another mass surveillance program—which lets the NSA obtain not just records of calls, but the actual content of communications of foreigners outside of the U.S. This program, said the panel, "has clearly served an important function in helping the United States to uncover and prevent terrorist attacks both in the United States and around the world."

    Well then, maybe the NSA should end the metadata collection program and just go ahead and start recording all of our domestic calls. Since apparently recording the contents of foreign communication has allegedly prevented actual terrorist attacks, and "it's sometimes necessary to sacrifice civil liberties to secure vital gains in public safety." I'm guessing Chapman would be A-OK with that. Fuck off Chapman, you slimy little quisling.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    "Never have so many Americans been brought under surveillance for such a meager payoff."

    That the government is willing to admit to. Frankly, I suspect that the program IS a waste; that would match my opinion of most government initiatives. But if we are seeing no results, that doesn't necessarily mean that there are none.

  • Jim176||

    OK now I am not an intelligence analyst so therefore I am not an expert on the subject but it seems to me that if you want to be able to find the proverbial needle in the haystack you don't start by making a bigger haystack.

  • ||

    The important question is not how to adjust it to "balance" security and privacy. It's whether the government should be doing this at all.

    This is the whole point. All this talk about "balancing" is like saying that a lynch mob ought not make cries of hate, just hang the dude quietly with a grim mien.

  • thorax232||

    Kind of an apologist article, don't you think? There's no need for any "public" surveillance programs or any public programs at all for that matter.

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