Since the disclosures of the National Security Agency’s vast domestic surveillance programs became public knowledge, President Barack Obama and congressional supporters have repeatedly said that the bulk data collection of phone records is necessary to prevent terrorist attacks.
Intelligence officials have gone so far to claim that some 50 terror plots have been foiled because of the program. That number was repeated by President Obama. “Lives have been saved,” he insisted in June shortly after the initial disclosures by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The credibility of this claim was already significantly diminished in October, when NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander admitted in congressional testimony that he had inflated the number of purportedly foiled plots.
“These weren’t all plots, and they weren’t all foiled, would you agree with that, yes or no?” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) asked the NSA chief. “Yes,” said Alexander.
The claim has been even further undermined by the White House Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology, the five-member panel that reviewed the programs and made a number recommendations to President Barack Obama that would reform the NSA and provide for more accountability and transparency.
“NSA believes that on at least a few occasions, information derived from the section 215 bulk telephony meta-data program has contributed to its efforts to prevent possible terrorist attacks, either in the United States or somewhere else in the world,” wrote the panel in its report, Liberty and Security in a Changing World. “Our review suggests that the information contributed to terrorist investigations by the use of section 215 telephony metadata was not essential to preventing attacks and could readily have been obtained in a timely manner using conventional section 215 orders.”
Geoffrey Stone, one of the panel’s members, told NBC News that the Review Group did not find any evidence that the NSA’s bulk data collection program foiled or thwarted a terror plot.
Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, the “business records” provision, already allows federal law enforcement officials to obtain “any tangible things” related to an authorized investigation in to terrorist activity. If there was a specific person who the FBI was investigating, officials could seek a court order through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) to obtain relevant records.
But with the metadata program, the NSA obtain a general warrant to obtain the data of virtually every American, essentially treating everyone as though they are under investigation for terrorism. This sort of dragnet surveillance is not authorized by the PATRIOT Act, according to its sponsor, Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI).
“Put simply, the phone calls we make to our friends, our families, and business associates are private and have nothing to do with terrorism or the government’s efforts to stop it,” said Sensenbrenner in a speech this fall at the Cato Institute. “The arguments to the contrary are not compelling.”
“As the administration explains it, all of our phone records are relevant because the connections between individual data points are of potential value. But these private collections are only of value if they in some way relate to terrorism,” he noted. “To the extent that they don’t, the government has no right to collect them.”
“The government claims it needs the haystack to find a needle. But gathering the haystack — and making it larger — without knowledge that it contains the needle is precisely what the relevant standard was supposed to prevent,” he added.
Sensenbrenner has become one of the most vocal critics of the NSA and its bulk data collection programs. He’s leading the effort in the House of Representatives to reform the agency, introducing the USA FREEDOM Act, which would end the bulk data collection programs. The measure broad bipartisan support.
As for the White House and the NSA, there is a very severe credibility gap with the American people. At this press conference on Friday, President Obama said that he would review the recommendations presented by the Review Group and speak more in-depth about the issue next month.