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17 Jan, 2014

FREE Download: Study says NSA Bulk Surveillance Programs Do Little to Prevent Terrorism


WASHINGTON, DC January 13, 2014, (New America Foundation media release) – In the wake of the uproar caused by the leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, President Obama, the NSA director and members of Congress defended the NSA surveillance programs by claiming they helped thwart more than 50 potential terrorist events in more than 20 countries around the world. However, a review of the program by New America’s National Security Program shows that these claims are overblown and even misleading.

An in-depth analysis of 225 individuals recruited by al-Qaeda, or a like-minded group, or inspired by al-Qaeda’s ideology, and charged in the United States with an act of terrorism since 9/11, demonstrates that traditional investigative methods, such as the use of informants, tips from local communities, and targeted intelligence operations provided the initial impetus for investigations in the majority of cases, while the contribution of NSA’s bulk surveillance programs to these cases was minimal. Indeed, the controversial bulk collection of American telephone metadata under Section 215 of the Patriot Act appears to have played an identifiable role in, at most, 1.8 percent of these cases. NSA programs involving the surveillance of non-U.S. persons outside of the United States played a role in 4.4 percent of the terrorism cases examined in the study.

“Our investigation found that bulk collection 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,” said Peter Bergen, Director of New America’s National Security Program. “And the NSA has also exaggerated the role of its bulk collection program of international communications in the investigations of the terrorism cases it has cited to defend this program.”

The analysis also shows that the plot the government uses to justify the importance of the bulk collection of phone metadata program – that of a San Diego cabdriver who provided money to and al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia – calls into question the necessity of the Section 215 bulk collection program. In that case, after using the NSA’s controversial 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.

Indeed, the overall problem for U.S. counterterrorism officials is not that they don’t gather enough information from the bulk surveillance of phone data and emails, but that they don’t sufficiently understand or widely share the information they already possess that is derived from conventional law enforcement and intelligence techniques. This was true with 9/11, as well as with the case of Chicago resident David Coleman Headley, who helped plan the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, and it is the unfortunate pattern we have also seen in several other significant terrorism cases.

The report drew several conclusions, including:

Traditional investigative methods initiated the majority of terrorism cases. [see: graphic]

The bulk collection of American phone metadata has contributed little to national security.

The government has exaggerated the need to conduct bulk surveillance of non-U.S. persons.

Read the full report: “Do NSA’s Bulk Surveillance Programs Stop Terrorists?”