Report: NSA program had “no discernible impact” in preventing terrorist attacks

President Barack Obama and senior intelligence officials have insisted that the National Security Agency’s bulk data collection program has prevented or foiled dozens of terrorist attacks. They, of course, wouldn’t provide many details about the nature of the attacks or whether the program was truly beneficial in thwarting terrorism.

Probably because it’s not true.

The New American Foundation released an analysis of 225 individuals who were investigated by federal law enforcement since 9/11. The analysis, first reported by the Washington Post, found that there is no evidence that bulk data collection program prevented acts of terrorism.

“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,” noted the authors of the report — Peter Bergen, David Sterman, Emily Schneider, and Bailey Cahall.

“Furthermore,” they continued, “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.”

The authors note that there was a two-month gap between when the NSA linked Moalin and when the FBI began investigating the suspect and surveilling his phone calls. Moalin was convicted in February 2013, along with three co-conspirators, for providing support to foreign terrorists.

“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,” the authors explain.

The full report is available here.

The credibility of government claims had already taken a hit in October, when Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) was able to get NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander to admit that the number of purported attacks had been inflated. It was further undermined in the recent report from White House Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology.

The panel found that the NSA’s “use of section 215 telephony metadata was not essential to preventing attacks.” What’s more, the White House-sanctioned panel noted that the intelligence agency didn’t need a vast database containing more than 1 trillion phone records. They said that the metadata related to potential terrorist activity “could readily have been obtained in a timely manner using conventional section 215 orders.”

According to the New American Foundation’s analysis, just 1.8% of individuals were investigated as a result of the NSA bulk data collection program. Nearly 60% of these individuals were investigated through traditional means, such as a tip or an informant.

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