Edward Snowden: NSA Too Busy Spying on Americans To Catch Terrorists

Edward SnowdenThe GuardianIn testimony published last week by the European Parliament's Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice, and Home Affairs, NSA snooping whistleblower Edward Snowden told lawmakers that mass spying has proven to be an especially ineffective means of deterring wrongdoing. NSA claims to have prevented multiple terrorist attacks evaporate upon actual scrutiny. Worse, he says, the NSA is so busy probing the general public's gaming habits and personal communications that it has no time or resources to devote to anything useful—like stopping terrorists.

According to Snowden (PDF):

The first principle any inquiry must take into account is that despite extraordinary political pressure to do so, no western government has been able to present evidence showing that such programs are necessary. In the United States, the heads of our spying services once claimed that 54 terrorist attacks had been stopped by mass surveillance, but two independent White House reviews with access to the classified evidence on which this claim was founded concluded it was untrue, as did a Federal Court.

Looking at the US government's reports here is valuable. The most recent of these investigations, performed by the White House's Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, determined that the mass surveillance program investigated was not only ineffective--they found it had never stopped even a single imminent terrorist attack--but that it had no basis in law.

Specifically, the board concluded, "we have not identified a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation."

When it comes to legal concerns, the board noted "There are four grounds upon which we find that the telephone records program fails to comply with Section 215," that "the program violates the Electronic Communications Privacy Act," and that "The NSA’s telephone records program also raises concerns under both the First and Fourth Amendments to the United States Constitution."

The board's report also cautioned, "the bulk collection of telephone records can be expected to have a chilling effect on the free exercise of speech and association, because individuals and groups engaged in sensitive or controversial work have less reason to trust in the confidentiality of their relationships as revealed by their calling patterns."

Needless to say, the White House glibly rejected the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board's conclusions.

Snowden went on to point out the failings of the NSA's all-you-can-hoover approach to surveillance.

I believe that suspicionless surveillance not only fails to make us safe, but it actually makes us less safe. By squandering precious, limited resources on "collecting it all," we end up with more analysts trying to make sense of harmless political dissent and fewer investigators running down real leads. I believe investing in mass surveillance at the expense of traditional, proven methods can cost lives, and history has shown my concerns are justified.

Despite the extraordinary intrusions of the NSA and EU national governments into private communications world-wide, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the "Underwear Bomber," was allowed to board an airplane traveling from Europe to the United States in 2009. The 290 persons on board were not saved by mass surveillance, but by his own incompetence, when he failed to detonate the device. While even Mutallab's own father warned the US government he was dangerous in November 2009, our resources were tied up monitoring online games and tapping German ministers. That extraordinary tip-off didn't get Mutallab a dedicated US investigator. All we gave him was a US visa.

Nor did the US government's comprehensive monitoring of Americans at home stop the Boston Bombers. Despite the Russians specifically warning us about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the FBI couldn't do more than a cursory investigation--although they did plenty of worthless computer-based searching--and failed to discover the plot. 264 people were injured, and 3 died. The resources that could have paid for a real investigation had been spent on monitoring the call records of everyone in America.

Snowden's testimony also ranged over disclosures to come, and the complicity of European spy agencies in snooping on each other's citizens—and then sharing the data with the NSA, which gets the full package. Countries even modify their privacy laws to make the NSA's job (and that of their own agencies) easier.

All of this, to suck up more data than the spies can process, at the expense of targeting real threats.

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  • EDG reppin' LBC||

    The US Govt is far more terrorized by its own liberty loving citizens than it is of foreign terrorists, or state agents.

  • AlexInCT||

    And the current crop of Top Men is even more concerned. Once people realize how badly they are getting fleeced, they might do something, and the Top men can't have any of that.

  • Quixote||

    We must certainly mobilize all available public resources to protect the reputations of well-connected members of the community, especially when they are subjected to online satire and criticism that "crosses the line." Prosecutors in New York have done an excellent job suppressing the Internet rabble, and we must hope others will follow suit elsewhere across the country. See the documentation of today's leading "criminal satire" trial at:

    http://raphaelgolbtrial.wordpress.com/

  • UnCivilServant||

    At this point, it's safe to assume that the entire "Intelligence" arm of the federal government needs to be burned out - with real fire.

  • Quixote||

    Not only federal, but state resources are being squandered on pointless efforts to watch over and control Internet nonsense that poses no danger to public safety whatsoever. For a case in point, see the

    Ten years is a long sentence. In New York they let this kind of Internet rabble-rouser off with just around six months. For an example, see the documentation of today's leading "criminal satire" trial at:

    http://raphaelgolbtrial.wordpress.com/

  • Quixote||

    My comment was garbled. It should read:

    Not only federal, but state resources are being squandered on pointless efforts to watch over and control Internet nonsense that poses no danger to public safety whatsoever. For a case in point, see the documentation of today's leading "criminal satire" trial at:

    http://raphaelgolbtrial.wordpress.com/

  • PapayaSF||

    That is what it seems like, doesn't it? All this snooping on Americans, but when Russia calls us up and says: "Hey, you've got two Muslim refugee brothers from Chechnya living in Boston who might be terrorists," nothing happens.

  • wareagle||

    that only further reveals bureaucratic impotence. What would have been done with the Tsarnaevs before the fact? Had they been rounded up, people on this site and some in govt would be saying it's Minority Report come to life, and they would be right.

  • Ivan Pike Trolle||

    What would have been done with the Tsarnaevs before the fact?

    A warrant could have been issued and they could have been looked at. No violations of their rights need have happened, but if they are identified as possible terrorists, then looking at them might have saved some lives.

  • wareagle||

    a warrant usually means someone is being picked up. They would obviously have denied everything anyway, leaving us with nothing actionable.

    That's what I'm talking about - people want to believe that some magic policy can head off bad thoughts from becoming bad actions.

  • Ivan Pike Trolle||

    a warrant usually means someone is being picked up. They would obviously have denied everything anyway, leaving us with nothing actionable.

    That's what I'm talking about - people want to believe that some magic policy can head off bad thoughts from becoming bad actions.

    That is why I said "might." Nothing is guaranteed. But at least there was 'some' hint that they might have been dangerous. Rather than the NSA sucking up everything with no idea of who or what they are looking for.

  • PapayaSF||

    Rather than the NSA sucking up everything with no idea of who or what they are looking for.

    I am convinced that, largely for reasons of political correctness, the NSA would rather look at everyone than focus on the much smaller segment of the population that contains the terrorists and terrorist-supporters.

  • AnnGreenleaf||

    You know what? I am inclined, more and more, to think that this is a data dragnet to snare people who are "inconvenient."

    They haven't quite decided what markers they'll look for...maybe a combination of several beliefs will single a person out.

    Your take, that the NSA is just trying to be impartial, is optimistic...but I hope it's true.

  • BakedPenguin||

    They might also have been scared away from going through with their plan, and 3 people would still be alive today. They might have been found with explosives.

  • VicRattlehead||

    they didnt use explosives, they used pressure cookers and hardware; nuts, bolts, ball bearings.
    its an exceedingly simple concept, no online surfing needed to be able to make one just a basic understanding of what it does.
    terrorism is scary for people because it is completely unpreventable on small scale operations unless caught in the act, the only thing that would ever be able to be stopped with these methods is a massive attack that requires months to years of planning between multiple actors
    thats the point of lone wolf cells, they need no instruction, they know the targets because they were taught who targets were

  • Rasilio||

    You are forgetting about a SEARCH WARRANT.

    In otherwords no one is objecting to the NSA or other government agencies using all of the surveillance powers they possess when a neutral court of law issues a search warrant.

    However as Snowden pointed out, the fact that we are expending so many resources scanning as much useless data on every American we can the resources needed to properly secure a search warrant and then actually watch the two in detail were not available

  • WTF||

    However, there is a whole spectrum of actions between "round them up" and "do nothing". It might have made sense to investigate them and keep an eye on them.

  • PapayaSF||

    Don't forget that they seem to have been connected to the murder of some pot dealers a few years earlier. Simple investigative techniques would have turned up the fact that some friends/acquaintances of theirs were murdered, and that should have triggered a closer look.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    We're all Enemies of the State, now.

  • R C Dean||

    Welcome to the party, P!

    What a shocking assertion: that government agencies are not immune from opportunity costs, and that increasing the input of low-value data degrades the signal-to-noise ratio!

    Obviously, Snowden is a Russian stooge spewing propaganda.

  • ||

    Finally, I was getting tired of not doing all the shit that helped the terrorists win.

    Now I can go back to my passive-assistance.

    government EO
    Explosion jihad mailbomb
    Suicide attack
    -http://www.nsahaiku.net/

  • Homple||

    "By squandering precious, limited resources on "collecting it all," we end up with more analysts trying to make sense of harmless political dissent...."

    Under the current regime, all political dissent harmful. That is the entire point of our surveillance state.

  • mr simple||

    I'm sure the government would get right on correcting this if they cared one bit about rule of law or national security and weren't just interested in command and control of the non-government citizens.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    The resources that could have paid for a real investigation had been spent on monitoring the call records of everyone in America.

    Why are we starving our most vital government agencies of desperately needed resources?

  • wareagle||

    apparently, we think it's more vital to spy on everyone just because than to figure out if doing that has any benefit. Vital depends on whose ox is or is not being gored.

  • Almanian!||

    I normally like Mike Baker (former CIA) on Red Eye, but he went full retard recently about this. Kmele Foster PWND him re: surveillance, and Baker was reduced to "Oh, you and Snowden are such experts. You have so much experience in intelligence. Snowden was a low-level operative, so how much does he know?"

    Well, he knew enought to apparently get THE FAMILY-FUCKING JEWELS, Mike. At least according to you. Ooooh, it's the end of the world...critical information about "methods and tactics" or something. But he's a "low-level operative".

    So our own internal security is so bad that I can just get hired in as a "low-level" operative and steal EVERYTHING? But you want me to trust you with all that info. Which didn't stop underwear guy, shoe guy, the Boston Bombers, and some others I'm not thinking of, despite GLARING FUCKING WARNINGS.

    Fuck the NSA, fuck the CIA, fuck the FBI, fuck local police agencies, fuck the Administration, fuck Congress, and FUCK MIKE BAKER.

  • Pro Libertate||

    I'm rather surprised mass firings haven't happened just because of what Snowden was able to get. I mean, that should've been nearly impossible.

  • Almanian!||

    And I'm not surprised at all that no one was fired! That's how jaded I am. Very, very green I am.

    Fucking government. GAAAAAAH!

  • Pro Libertate||

    How is it possible he had access to everything, let alone the ability to copy and run with it? Heck, even the president shouldn't be able to do that.

  • Almanian!||

    I know, right? and yet - HE DID!

    fuck me

  • Pro Libertate||

    If that happened at my company with, say, customer information, I'm rather confident people would suffer. It's quite disturbing that the government isn't doing any headhunting here. Besides wanting to drone-murder Snowden, that is.

  • iEagleHammer||

    And apparently it wasn't even that hard...

  • Almanian!||

    heh heh....you said "hard"....heh heh...

  • ||

    I agree. Fired or quit. Even if you didn't like Snowden or what he did, you've still gotta be showing up at your job every day with your fingers crossed or saying a prayer that you're *today* not violating the Constitution...

  • iEagleHammer||

    No point in saying that prayer if you work for the NSA, the answer is always yes, you are.

  • GLK||

    Firings would be perceived as an admission of guilt. Can't have that.

  • sarcasmic||

    It's almost as if their stated intentions of stopping terrorists and their actual intentions don't match up.

  • Almanian!||

    that sounds so - sarcasmic....

  • wareagle||

    you don't gain power and control people by solving problems, only by scaring the hell out of folks. Why, one dollar cut from the surveillance state means the new caliphate will be born in Peoria by noon Wednesday.

  • ||

    Who'd of thought?

  • tarran||

    As a court-sanctioned national security monitor, I see examples every day of people who would never have voluntarily shared vital clues needed to catch terrorists if they weren't forced to by the courts and law enforcement. Nobody seeks to take time off from something they enjoy doing and feel good about to share information that might be significant, even if with each passing day the probability that they will be killed by a terrorist increases. You talk about 'freedom' but what kind of freedom is that, where you don't want to do what's necessary to prevent dangerous people from hurting our neighbors or gambling with them? Sometimes you have to force people to become free.

  • EDG reppin' LBC||

    This will never get old. Thanks for providing us with the "alternative viewpoint".

  • Almanian!||

    *slow clap*

  • Mainer2||

    was that Rollo..oh wait, he was a court appointed drug counselor.

  • PaulW||

    Doesn't Tony usually argue that libertarians force freedom on everyone. I'm so confused.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    Snowden was a low-level operative, so how much does he know?

    It's funny, in a sad, pathetic way, to watch these people contort themselves over Snowden.

    He's the functional equivalent of a burger flipper, WHO PULLED OFF THE HEIST OF THE CENTURY.

    Which is it; pool boy, or criminal mastermind?

  • Almanian!||

    "Pool Boy: Master Criminal" - I see millions at the box office...

  • Mainer2||

    The city's most humble and lovable character: Pool Boy.

  • ||

    It has the same initials as Paul Blart: Mall Cop. I smell box office gold!

  • R C Dean||

    You talk about 'freedom' but what kind of freedom is that, where you don't want to do ________?

    The kind where You aren't free unless you are free to be wrong?

  • The Late P Brooks||

    Nobody seeks to take time off from something they enjoy doing and feel good about to share information that might be significant, even if with each passing day the probability that they will be killed by a terrorist increases. You talk about 'freedom' but what kind of freedom is that, where you don't want to do what's necessary to prevent dangerous people from hurting our neighbors or gambling with them? Sometimes you have to force people to become free.

    WTF?

  • EDG reppin' LBC||

    It's a spoof on Tulpa's sockpuppet "Rollo".

  • Almanian!||

    What was that movie with MATT DAMON! and Angelina Jolie? "Company Man" or something..."The Good Shepherd", that was it! I thought it was outstanding. Creepy as fuck.

    Now it looks like it was either a history lesson, or a....cookbook...

  • The Late P Brooks||

    It's a spoof on Tulpa's sockpuppet "Rollo".

    No wonder it made my head hurt.

  • waffles||

    Didn't Snowden's leak cost the U.S. taxpayers something like 2 billion dollars? Some important NSA guy said so last week.

  • Pro Libertate||

    That's an interesting point. I assume that figure is coming from the review and revamping of whatever security systems were in place. Since it should've been virtually impossible for Snowden to have access to, let alone the ability to copy and take off with, all that data, it rather strikes me that the money should've been spent beforehand, anyway.

  • ||

    Yes, they didn't spend the $2B up front to distribute information storage, craft hierarchical access, etc., now they're going to *have* to do that.

    Know when a woman (usually) buys something not entirely needed on SALE and "saves money"? The opposite of that.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Think about this, too. If security was that shitty, what about the actual foreign agent who tried to get to some of that data? At least Snowden let the world know about it. Not likely a foreign government would do so, since knowing secrets is valuable in and of itself.

  • ||

    If someone told me that, my response would be: "You have no idea how much your concern over 0.07% of the federal budget amuses me when you apparently have no issue with the NSA arbitrarily taking and spending hundreds of times more than that of other people's money to spy on said other people."

  • PaulW||

    Funny huh, we pay the government to spy on us without our consent.

    In other news, my wife came over to the libertarian side when she realized about 45% of her income goes straight to the government, and none of that helps her one iota now that she married me.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    If that happened at my company with, say, customer information, I'm rather confident people would suffer. It's quite disturbing that the government isn't doing any headhunting here.

    The complete and utter lack of introspection or honest self-aware grading of job performance on the part of government employees is truly frightening.

    "Procedures were followed" is not, and never will be, an adequate defense.

  • Pro Libertate||

    There's definitely an increased lack of accountability in government, anymore. President Not My Fault is just a symptom.

  • PaulW||

    Is that kind of like "Ignorance of the law is not a defense, unless you're a cop"?

  • David Wall||

    It is still be too early to tell, but I think maybe this guy is a principled hero out of an Ayn Rand novel.

  • PaulW||

    Snowden?

    Fuck yeah he is a hero.

    If you do something good and then subject yourself to punishment for it willingly, that doesn't make you honorable, it makes you retarded.

  • David Wall||

    I don't think we know yet for sure if there are some dark soldiers out there protecting us that he exposed and hurt as a consequence.

    Gotta wait and see. But so far he looks like the real deal.

  • ||

    Edward Snowden a virtual unknown 7 months ago has been elevated to cult hero status with his revelations of government spying on law abiding citizens.

    The U.S. government should suspend the NSA but will not. Until it does. I believe that Edward Snowden did the world community a vital service. No one in government would tell us our privacy rights were being trampled.

  • John B.||

    I'm a big fan of Edward Snowden because he is the first person, who pointed his finger on the real big brother we have here - NSA. Government of United States should immediatelly suspend whole agency, apologize publicly to all who were spied, and make sure this never happens again.
    If it does not reconsider its spying strategy, US should not be considered a democratic government anymore.

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