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At the end of this week President Obama is expected to finally answer the mounting calls to curtail the NSA's bloated power to invade its citizens' privacy by spying on millions of Americans' communications. But the president is going to have a hard time falling back on the old standby explanation that massive data collection is a necessary evil to protect the country from terrorism.
A new analysis of terrorism charges in the US found that the NSA's dragnet domestic surveillance "had no discernible impact" on preventing terrorist acts. Instead, the majority of threats over the last decade were detected by regular old intelligence and law enforcement methods—tips, informants, CIA and FBI ops, routine law enforcement.
The nonprofit think tank New America Foundation published a report today after investigating the 227 Al Qaeda-affiliated people or groups that have been charged for committing an act of terrorism in the US since 9/11. It found just 17 of the cases were credited to NSA surveillance, and just one conviction came out of the government's extra-controversial practice of spying on its own citizens. And that charge, against San Diego cab driver Basaaly Moalin, was for sending money to a terrorist group in Somalia. There was no threat of an actual attack.
This is hardly the first time experts have searched for a link between bulk metadata collection and foiled terrorist plots and come up empty-handed. So far, the only real value in collecting and monitoring billions of US phone records has been to provide extra support in investigations already underway by the FBI or another agency, or to verify that a rumored threat isn't real (the "peace of mind" metric), the report found.
But that hasn't stopped NSA officials and the Obama administration from drumming up a connection between terrorist attacks and surveillance to defend the agency's snooping.
Shortly after Edward Snowden blew the lid off the classified PRISM program and the backlash heated up, officials claimed the mass surveillance tactics had thwarted 54 terrorist plots. NSA Director Keith Alexander trotted out this number in his testimony before Congress and the president echoed the line to the press.
Eventually that claim was found to be grossly exaggerated and Alexander walked back the statement, admitting the cases weren't actually terrorist plots per se. He traded in the words "plots" and "attacks" for "events" and "activities." But the 50+ number was already pretty well-circulated through the press.
Of course, government talking points on the issue also strategically tie the unpopular spy ops to the attack on 9/11. Officials were told to use lines like, "NSA and its partners must make sure we connect the dots so that the nation is never attacked again like it was on 9/11," and "I much prefer to be here today explaining these programs than explaining another 9/11 event that we were not able to prevent," Al Jazeera revealed.
But even though the attack on the World Trade Center was used as justification for expanding the intelligence community's powers in the first place, the new report suggests that the 9/11 hijackers didn't succeed by totally blindsiding the US, but because the government bungled the early warnings.
"The overall problem for US counterterrorism officials is not that they need the information from the bulk collection of phone data, 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," wrote New American Foundation National Security Director Peter Bergen.
Now it's over a decade later and the US government has backdoor access into basically the entire digiverse, with no evidence to prove the dubious data collection is doing anything at all useful. Last month, Obama's advisory panel determined the agency’s spy operations are "not essential to preventing attacks," and handed him 46 recommendations for reforming the programs. Unfortunately, sources say the president has embraced the terrorism justification and isn’t expected to make any major moves to narrow the scope of domestic surveillance, just call for minor changes to reassure Americans that their civil liberties aren't being trampled.