NSA

NSA Bulk Collection of Americans' Phone Data Had "No Discernible Impact" on Preventing Terrorism, Says New Study

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NSA spying
EFF

The national security researchers at the Washington, D.C.-based New America Foundation have combed through data on 225 individuals identified as posing possible terrorist threats to the United States. The analysts sought to uncover data that suggests that the National Security Agency's unconstitutional bulk collection of the phone records of essentially all Americans significantly helped in any of those investigations.

The NAF analysts begin by pointing out after the revelations of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden were first published the agency's abettors countered by claiming that their extensive spying on Americans had averted several terrorist attacks. As the NAF reminds us:

President Obama defended the NSA surveillance programs during a visit to Berlin, saying: "We know of at least 50 threats that have been averted because of this information not just in the United States, but, in some cases, threats here in Germany. So lives have been saved."  Gen. Keith Alexander, the director of the NSA, testified before Congress that: "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."  Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said on the House floor in July that "54 times [the NSA programs] stopped and thwarted terrorist attacks both here and in Europe – saving real lives." 

The new NAF report finds that these claims are almost entirely specious:

Surveillance of American phone metadata has had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism and only the most marginal of impacts on preventing terrorist-related activity, such as fundraising for a terrorist group. Furthermore, our examination of the role of the database of U.S. citizens' telephone metadata in the single plot the government uses to justify the importance of the program – that of Basaaly Moalin, a San Diego cabdriver who in 2007 and 2008 provided $8,500 to al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda's affiliate in Somalia – calls into question the necessity of the Section 215 bulk collection program.  According to the government, the database of American phone metadata allows intelligence authorities to quickly circumvent the traditional burden of proof associated with criminal warrants, thus allowing them to "connect the dots" faster and prevent future 9/11-scale attacks. Yet in the Moalin case, after using the NSA's phone database to link a number in Somalia to Moalin, the FBI waited two months to begin an investigation and wiretap his phone. Although it's unclear why there was a delay between the NSA tip and the FBI wiretapping, court documents show there was a two-month period in which the FBI was not monitoring Moalin's calls, despite official statements that the bureau had Moalin's phone number and had identified him. ,  This undercuts the government's theory that the database of Americans' telephone metadata is necessary to expedite the investigative process, since it clearly didn't expedite the process in the single case the government uses to extol its virtues. 

Additionally, a careful review of three of the key terrorism cases the government has cited to defend NSA bulk surveillance programs reveals that government officials have exaggerated the role of the NSA in the cases against David Coleman Headley and Najibullah Zazi, and the significance of the threat posed by a notional plot to bomb the New York Stock Exchange.

Go here to read the full report.