The NSA's Phone Record Database Is 'Essential,' but We Can't Cite a Single Case Where That Was True

House Intelligence CommitteeHouse Intelligence CommitteeAt a Senate hearing last week, Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency, said the NSA's mass collection of Americans' phone records via Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act has "helped prevent...dozens of terrorist events...both here and abroad." Later in the same hearing, he retreated from that claim, saying he could not "state unequivocally" that the phone record database "contributed solely" to preventing any particular attack. The equivocation continued at yesterday's House Intelligene Committee hearing, where Alexander paired the phone record database with monitoring of foreign targets' communications under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act:

In recent years, the information gathered from these programs provided the U.S. government with critical leads to help prevent over 50 potential terrorist events in more than 20 countries around the world. FAA [FISA Amendments Act] 702 contributed in over 90 percent of these cases. At least 10 of these events included homeland-based threats. In the vast majority, business records, FISA reporting contributed as well.

Alexander is moving further and further away from answering the question posed last week by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who wanted to know "how many times phone records obtained through Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act were critical to the discovery and disruption of terrorist threats." So far neither Alexander nor any other administration official has cited a single case that fits this description. Even when phone records help to flesh out a lead obtained through other means, it is not at all clear why the NSA needs to collect everyone's information in anticipation of that possibility, as opposed to seeking specific orders as the need arises. Consider how Alexander responded to that question yesterday:

Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California, pressed General Alexander to explain why the F.B.I. could not simply get the relevant logs of calls linked to a suspicious number without keeping a database of all domestic calls.

General Alexander said he was open to discussing doing it that way, but added, "The concern is speed in crisis."

Seriously? All privacy safeguards represent an impediment to law enforcement; that's the whole idea. It is a bother to obtain a warrant before searching someone's house, but that does not mean we should dispense with that requirement in the interest of "speed" (although the courts do recognize an exception in the event of an actual emergency). Furthermore, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court is designed to act swiftly, and it is hard to believe that any delay caused by seeking a Section 215 order would be the difference between stopping a "potential terrorist event" and allowing it to happen, especially since the foiled plots highlighted by the government tend to be half-baked schemes at best. Even Alexander does not seem to think that scenario is plausible; otherwise why would he be open to discussing a more targeted, less invasive approach to collecting phone records?

The difference between assembling everyone's phone records into a comprehensive database and seeking phone records relevant to a particular investigation is no minor detail. The indiscriminate nature of the NSA's phone record dragnet is the main basis for the constitutional and statutory arguments against it. Even Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), a co-author of the PATRIOT Act, complains that it goes beyond anything he and his colleagues meant to authorize. Yet here is the head of the NSA saying, in effect, that it might not be necessary after all.

That is consistent with the conclusions of Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.), who as members of the Senate Intelligence Committee should be privy to the relevant information:

After years of review, we believe statements that this very broad Patriot Act collection has been "a critical tool in protecting the nation" do not appear to hold up under close scrutiny. We remain unconvinced that the secret Patriot Act collection has actually provided any uniquely valuable intelligence. As far as we can see, all of the useful information that it has provided appears to have also been available through other collection methods that do not violate the privacy of law-abiding Americans in the way that the Patriot Act collection does.

They reiterated this point in response to Alexander's testimony at last week's hearing:

We have not yet seen any evidence showing that the NSA's dragnet collection of Americans' phone records has produced any uniquely valuable intelligence. Gen. Alexander's testimony yesterday suggested that the NSA’s bulk phone records collection program helped thwart 'dozens' of terrorist attacks, but all of the plots that he mentioned appear to have been identified using other collection methods. 

Deputy FBI Director Sean Joyce, who also testified at yesterday's hearing, likewise was unable to cite a single case in which the phone record database was crucial in stopping a terrorist attack. He called it  "an almost impossible question," even while insisting that "every tool is essential and vital." 

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  • John||

    General Alexander said he was open to discussing doing it that way, but added, "The concern is speed in crisis."

    That is such a fucking lie. What crisis? This is supposed to be an investigative tool. You investigate before the crisis. If it is an emergency, you better know what you are looking for. I don't think trolling through every call made in America in the last week is a very good way to deal with a "crisis".

    Gen. Alexander's testimony yesterday suggested that the NSA’s bulk phone records collection program helped thwart 'dozens' of terrorist attacks, but all of the plots that he mentioned appear to have been identified using other collection methods.

    Exactly. Unless and until they can show that they found and thwarted a terror plot that no one had any clue about but for this program, they haven't shown shit. Sure, they can assist if we already suspect someone. But if we know who to target, you can just get a warrant and there is no need to do this.

    What a steaming pile of horse shit. This program doesn't do a damned thing to make the country safer.

  • WTF||

    You just want the terrorists to win, because Obama's black and you're a racist. Anyway, Bush was worse.
    /Tony

  • Invisible Finger||

    The terrorists have already won. Gen. Keith Alexander is a terrorist.

  • Rich||

    These guys (Clapper, Alexander, et al.) just dig themselves in deeper at every new utterance. With all due respect, they should just plead the Fifth and be done with it.

  • Pro Libertate||

    The Fifth? Why do that when they can just invoke NATIONAL SECURITY, which trumps everything?

  • Rich||

    Also, "they are not on trial here".

    Silly me.

  • Raven Nation||

  • Pro Libertate||

    Wait, what?

  • Rich||

    the FBI ... has not adopted any strict policies or guidelines yet to govern the use of the controversial aircraft.

    So, I suppose anything they do is *legal*.

  • Pro Libertate||

    I don't understand why they don't use bombers, tanks, and nukes. All useful tools.

  • ||

  • Raston Bot||

    “Does the FBI use drones for surveillance on US soil?” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) asked Mr. Mueller during an oversight hearing on Capitol Hill Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.


    “Yes,” Mueller responded bluntly, adding that the FBI’s operation of drones is “very seldom.”

  • Raven Nation||

    "Does the FBI kidnap US citizens off American streets and beat them for hours."

    "Yes. But very seldom."

    "Does the FBI shoot people at random?"

    "Yes. But very seldom."

    Assholes

  • Invisible Finger||

    Too bad "only seldom" isn't a defense for anything.

    "I drive drunk, but very seldom."

    "I look at child porn, but only seldom."

    "I steal cars, but only seldom."

    "I rape, but very seldom."

    "I murder, but only seldom."

  • G-dub||

    I don't normally spy on U.S. citizens without a warrant, but when I do, I prefer drones.

  • Spiny Norman||

    "...and may I take this opportunity of emphasizing that there is no cannibalism in the British Navy. Absolutely none, and when I say none, I mean there is a certain amount, more than we are prepared to admit, but all new ratings are warned that if they wake up in the morning and find any toothmarks at all anywhere on their bodies, they're to tell me immediately so that I can immediately take every measure to hush the whole thing up."

  • gaijin||

    and look at all those medals and shit on his uniform. We should be thanking him for his selfless service truth, justice and the American way.

  • John||

    Anyone know if President Obama intends to perform background checks on the Syrian rebels before providing them weapons?

    Senator Ted Cruz (@SenTedCruz) June 18, 2013

    Hey Nick, fuck off. Ted Cruz is awesome.

  • ||

    Oh for fuck's sake. Of course the NSA dragnet is essential, just not for what they say it is essential for.

    Anytime someone sacks up and says it out loud they are discounted as a nut in spite of the fact that we all know it. They are too mendacious to admit it and it is too ugly for most people to face.

  • Raston Bot||

    Mr. Joyce replied, “I think the jury considered it serious, since they were all convicted.”

    However, Joshua L. Dratel, a lawyer for Mr. Hasanoff, called Mr. Joyce’s portrayal “astonishing” because none of the defendants was charged with the stock exchange allegation and there was no jury trial in any of the cases.

    And that's what happens when you ad-lib and stray from the pre-brief, Mr. Joyce.

  • John||

    That is just amazing. Basically they have no justification for this program. That is why they were so angry when it leaked. If it has been something to be proud of or something that actually stopped terrorism, they would have long since bragged about it themselves.

  • Raston Bot||

    Yep, it would have been leaked years ago.

  • gaijin||

    Basically they have no justification for this program. That is why they were so angry...

    It's like the Bourne Ultimatum or something. Soon, they'll be offing their own agents.

  • sarcasmic||

    When an exception is made for emergencies, everything becomes an emergency.

  • John||

    Come on. We need this stuff for crisis. You know, like today.

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