Would You Believe Zero Terrorist Attacks Foiled by the NSA's Phone Record Dragnet?


House Intelligence Committee

When U.S. District Judge Richard Leon issued his preliminary injunction against the NSA's phone record database yesterday, part of his analysis (which I will discuss in my column tomorrow) concerned whether the collection of telephone metadata counts as a "search" under the Fourth Amendment. But Leon also considered whether such a search might be "reasonable," even without an individualized warrant, because of its usefulness in preventing terrorist attacks. That part of the analysis was pretty straightforward, since the government had presented no evidence that the database has been useful in preventing terrorist attacks:

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 fact, none of the three "recent episodes" cited by the Government that supposedly "illustrate the role that telephony metadata analysis can play in preventing and protecting against terrorist attack" involved any apparent urgency….

Given the limited record before me at this point in the litigation—most notably, the utter lack of evidence that a terrorist attack has ever been prevented because searching the NSA database was faster than other investigative tactics—I have serious doubts about the efficacy of the metadata collection program as a means of conducting time-sensitive investigations in cases involving imminent threats of terrorism.

Leon's conclusion on this question is striking, since you'd think the Obama administration would be highly motivated to show that the database has been crucial in saving lives. If the government cannot muster a single plausible example, how can such a massive invasion of privacy possibly be justified?

The administration has been struggling with this problem since news reports based on leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden first revealed the existence of the phone record database last June. At first intelligence officials and their allies in Congress suggested that the program had been instrumental in foiling more than 50 terrorist plots. But those claims—which were immediately questioned by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.), who as members of the Senate Intelligence Committee ought to know—dissolved upon close examination. Last October a ProPublica analysis concluded "there's no evidence that the oft-cited figure is accurate."

The crucial question, usually dodged by the NSA and its defenders, is whether routinely collecting everyone's phone records, as opposed to seeking specific, evidence-based court orders aimed at particular targets, has been decisive in stopping terrorist attacks. If the government has been unable to offer any examples in the last six months, it seems unlikely it ever will.

NEXT: DHS Watchdog Resigns Amid Scandal

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  1. Inconceivable!

    1. Yes, I hear this in the voice of that one guy from Princess Bride.

      Well played…

    2. Incon-Theve-able!

  2. They intend to use the information to foil terrorist plots! What else matters?

  3. 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 fact, none of the three “recent episodes” cited by the Government that supposedly “illustrate the role that telephony metadata analysis can play in preventing and protecting against terrorist attack” involved any apparent urgency….

    And anyone is surprised by this? There are none. These techniques do not make us safer. I wish that Libertarians would hammer this point more instead of conceding it and arguing “well of course you should be willing to die to keep your privacy, you are going to die sometime aren’t you”.

    1. …”I wish that Libertarians would hammer this point”…

      John, have you tried pointing out to the Tonys of the world that O’care has both reduced the number with medical insurance and raised the price?
      It doesn’t matter. The result is irrelevant. It’s Obo’s ‘legacy’ and therefore rethuglicans!

      1. The Black Jesus keeps us safe Sevo.

        1. Hey now, he is half white.

      2. You have to ignore any data that contradict your preconceived notions. It’s the science of being right.

  4. “Would You Believe Zero Terrorist Attacks Foiled by the NSA’s Phone Record Dragnet?”

    Yes. Yes, I certainly would. In fact I’d be surprised if it were otherwise.

    1. I assumed–hoped, even–that the question was rhetorical since it was directed at us.

  5. The database hasn’t yet been applicable. However, they did test it in war games against scenarios from all seven seasons of 24. In every single case they were able to shorten the season by at least two hours.

    1. The only winning move is not to play. Or to watch 24 after season 1. Maybe season 2 because it’s very Elisha Cuthbert heavy.

      1. I’ve never seen Elisha Cuthbert and heavy used in a sentence together.

        1. Top heavy.

  6. If the government cannot muster a single plausible example, how can such a massive invasion of privacy possibly be justified?

    It can’t. Do you think they give a shit?

    1. I beleive the phrase is FYTW.

  7. I can’t see how these massive databases can provide any useful information in detecting and stopping a future attack. The problem is much, much worse that finding a needle in a haystack.

    The only rational reason for these databases to exist is to round up the co-conspirators after an attack has occurred (or to round up your political opponents when they piss you off).

    1. or to figure out who is fucking your girlfriend.

      1. Yep. You can be sure that the vast majority of data mining is personal.

    2. And once you have a person in custody, rounding up the co-conspirators is pretty easy. You don’t need a metadata dragnet on the entire country to do that.

      These databases are counter productive. They collect so much information they are overwhelmed and miss what is important. The Russians told them the Boston bombers were dangerous. But the information was never acted upon because it was lost in all of the noise.

      1. They could prove useful, if all you have left is body parts. But yes, the entire endeavor is terrible engineering, terrible police work, and terrible intelligence work. This is a jobs program for well-connected techies.

        1. Exactly. They didn’t know what to do after 911 and the NSA and FBI, who were the ones who fucked up were too politically powerful to ever be held accountable. So they threw money at the problem and created this giant bureaucracy with no real idea of what to do with it. So they just ended up collecting more and more because they had to do something.

          Beyond the privacy issues, the entire operation is a giant case of fraud waste and abuse. The government spend tens of billions of dollars on the IT community and has nothing to show for it.

          1. This exactly.

          2. Well said. Once again that word ‘accountability’ pops up and seems to have become meaningless.

      2. I believe the NSA is using this program as a science and research project as much as it is to actually discover plots.

        It really comes down to their attempt to see what’s possible in the realm of data collection, then tune the program down the road. The effectiveness isn’t really the only question anymore, they’re doing what they can do to prove to themselves that this kind of data collection is:



        -Useful in some unknown way in the future.

        -Scary to Americans and Foreigners.

        Yes. I do mean scary to Americans and Foreigners because I believe that it goes into the calculus in ‘preventing attacks’. The thought that the NSA is listening to your every word– or your every meta-data is probably part of the strategy in making it more difficult for naughty people to slip about.

        1. It just means they stop using the internet. If the NSA believes they are scaring terrorists, they are much dumber than I thought.

          1. Imagine if the next attack is planned via snail-mail? What are they gonna do then, start opening everyone’s snail-mail? Talk about a jobs program…

    3. Think about the fact that Google does exactly what the NSA says it wants to do: draw connections based on people’s telecommunications usage data. Google tries to figure out what you like and what you’re interested in so that it can show you ads that are targeted to you. The NSA would like to draw connections between people’s usage data and figure out if they are “interested” in certain things, like blowing up buildings, shooting up malls, and My Little Pony (yes, Bronies are terrorists). Think of how badly Google does this, for all its brilliant employees and advances. Now let’s imagine how well a bloated, massive government agency is going to do this.

      1. And also remember that what the government is trying to do is a thousand times more difficult. Consumers make no effort to conceal their preferences. Terrorists in contrast do. Moreover, for every actual terrorist who might reveal themselves, there are a million other people who are benignly curious or just blowhards who are not threat to anyone. There is no way to tell who is who until it is too late and one of them blows something up.

        This is why the only “terrorists” the FBI ever arrests are just morons they entrapped into starting a conspiracy. They take this preference info and go out fishing to find someone who is dumb enough to try it. Meanwhile, actual terrorists go merely on secure in the knowledge they are unlikely to ever be noticed by the FBI.

        1. Not too mention, couldn’t potential terrorists simply clog up the machine with misdirection? Wouldn’t it be incredibly easy to do that?

          1. I would think so yes.

  8. We have to do the searches to find out what’s reasonable.

    1. If you like your privacy, you can keep your privacy.

  9. Yes

    Wait – is this another Reason/Rupe poll? Where’s Emily Ekins?!

  10. Nothing from nothing leaves nothing, had to do something… Mother fucker punched you in the mouth.

  11. “NSA: Not a Terrorist in sight. Our data-mining and surveillance programs must be working like a charm.

    Court: That’s specious reasoning

    NSA: Thank you

    Court: By that logic I could claim that this rock keeps Terrorists away.

    NSA: Hmmm? how does that work?

    Court: It doesn’t work.

    NSA: Uh-huh?

    Court: It’s just a stupid rock.

    NSA: Uh-huh.

    Court: But I don’t see any Terrorists around, do you?

    [NSA thinks of this, then presses alarm button calling in team of black-clad security personnel]

    Security Team: Sir for National Security Reasons we will need to confiscate that rock; furthermore you are forbidden from ever speaking about any rock-technologies or their potential relations to any relevant government agencies. Also, take your shoes off.

  12. I couldn’t beleive the judge actually mentioned James Madison when talking about the constitution and what the Bill of Rights are supposed to protect…he talked about how Madison wrote it. When was the alst time a judge actually used that fact in court? Anytime you here judges speak of the constitution they pretend it is really vague, or written by 25 people and that the interpretation is impossible to decode. Like it is some sort of riddle left for us to decipher.

  13. I cringe when I hear opponents of domestic surveillance making this argument that the programs have been ineffective. That’s a sure loser, if not today then someday soon. Inevitably, making the argument implies a concession that if they were effective they would be acceptable, and therefore the surveillance capabilities must continue to be improved in order that nothing be missed.

    1. That’s a decent point.

      Some people have made a case to me that I’ll call the “defunct CCT camera” argument. They offer that, “security measures, even if they aren’t directly effective, can be a *deterrent* when you know they are there.”

      i.e. if you put a non-functioning security camera on the wall of your store, you could reduce shoplifting.

      They sell this as being ‘low cost’ as well – or ‘almost as effective as *REAL SECURITY*

      1. Sorry, that got cut off…

        anyway, the idea here is that the ‘efficacy’ argument gets reversed (a la the Tiger-Proof Rock) to where, “not having these measures” is seen as a foolishly leaving oneself open to exploitation.

        i.e. “Every little bit helps”, is an expression sometimes used.

        It becomes very difficult to undermine the idea of these programs when people do not see them as having any real cost or having any immediate impact on their lives.

    2. They will never be successful. The connect the dots unicorn is not coming through that door.

      Beyond that if you admit they are successful, you are reduced to telling people it is their job to risk death in order to protect privacy. You may find that argument compelling but few others will.

  14. Judge Leon is wrong about this — or at least, he hasn’t conceded that at least one other case may prove him wrong:…..gence.html

    The case of Jamshid Muhtorov, an Uzbek emigre in the US who was found to be calling the Islamic Jihad Union in Turkey, an offshoot of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan which has killed US troops and committed terrorists attacks in various companies, was arrested at the airport carrying money and equipment after quitting his job, saying goodbye to his family, and preparing to fly to Turkey.

    If it turns out his conversations were somehow unlawfully surveilled, his case may get thrown out.

    There are others like this. Some of them we know about, others we don’t.

  15. Everyone dances around the truth: The NSA phone taps are not to keep Americans safe from terrorism but rather to keep government safe from Americans.

  16. Yes, I believe it – because fending off terrorism is not even the reason for the spying, it’s to track and control us all. Terrorism simply offers an easy cover.

  17. Another excuse bites the dust. Geeze, people aren’t quite as gullible as after WWI. And Korea. And VN. And Iraq. And Afghanistan The fact that the NSA has been well-entrenched since the late 40’s might be a clue that it really wasn’t looking specifically for foreign terrorists

  18. There is approximately zero danger of a real “terrorist” attack. The “Islamic terrorists” are sitting over there in their yurts and caves watching satellite TeeVee seeing Our Glorious Beloved Infallible Commissar destroying America more thoroughly than they’d ever dared dream possible.

  19. I wish I didn’t have to point this out, but even IF they found many terrorist plots and terminated them from this program, it STILL shouldn’t be considered legal.
    The practical should not bulldoze over the principle.

  20. This doesn’t go far enough. There are three very solid instances where terrorists extensively communicated with non-nationals but were not prevented from conducting their operations. The cases are:

    Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (a.k.a. the underwear bomber)

    Nidal Malik Hasan (Fort Hood shootings)

    Tsarnaev Brothers (Boston Marathon Bombers)

    In addition, NSA was unable to prevent Edward Snowden who president Obama described as “a 29-year old hacker” from walking out of NSA with an extensive cache of documents.

    So in what way is NSA more effective in its mission than is in its mission?

  21. I listen to Dennis Prager regularly even though I disagree more with him than agree with him on most issues.

    He is still making the case that the NSA program is essential because it was proven it stopped at least 3 terror plots.

    This article indicates that the government has not presented actual cases.

    Which do I believe? I want to know the current facts.

    Also another argument that Prager makes (many of his current ones are fallacious) is that the (slight) depravation of privacy/liberty from the surveillance is worth it because when compared to no surveillance with the result of more terror attacks, we would then be under a state in which we would have many more of our liberties violated because of having to deal with all the chaos.
    So it is kind of a slippery slope argument and an either/or argument: either we take a minimal hit upon our current (theoretical) liberty now or have large decreases of actual liberty when we are being regularly attacked by terrorists.

    For a conservative who usually can make good arguments, I think Prager has done very poor here. Take a listen to some of his shows these last 6 months to hear them all. It is maddening.

  22. Wrong, it did stop one attack. The attack of the common citizen’s Liberty upon their Fascist regime. Thanks to Snowden for leveling the playing field.

  23. “And how many camels have you spotted so far?”
    “Oh, well so far Peter, up to the present moment, I’ve spotted nearly, ooh, nearly one.”
    “Nearly one?”
    “Er, call it none.”
    “Fine. And er how long have you been here?”
    “Three years.”
    “So, in, er, three years you’ve spotted no camels?”
    “Yes in only three years. Er, I tell a lie, four, be fair, five. I’ve been camel spotting for just the seven years. Before that of course I was a Yeti spotter.”
    “A Yeti spotter, that must have been extremely interesting.”
    “Oh it was extremely interesting, very, very ? quite … it was dull; dull, dull dull, oh God it was dull. Sitting in the Waterloo waiting room. Course once you’ve seen one Yeti you’ve seen them all.”
    “And have you seen them all?”
    “Well I’ve seen one. Well a little one … a picture of a … I’ve heard about them.”

  24. You know what they say, the best way to prevent terrorism is to stop participating in it.

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