Fun fact: NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ metadata doesn’t fight terrorism. A shocker, I know.
Remember a few months ago when it was revealed that the NSA collected the metadata of hundreds of millions of Americans in bulk, and in order to justify this exposed program, the NSA said it had helped prevent at least 54 terrorist plots?
Well, earlier this month the NSA admitted that was a lie. As the Washington Times reported:
Pressed by the Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee at an oversight hearing, Gen. Keith B. Alexander admitted that the number of terrorist plots foiled by the NSA’s huge database of every phone call made in or to America was only one or perhaps two — far smaller than the 54 originally claimed by the administration.
“There is no evidence that [bulk] phone records collection helped to thwart dozens or even several terrorist plots,” Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and committee chairman, told Gen. Alexander of the 54 cases that administration officials — including the general himself — have cited as the fruit of the NSA’s domestic snooping.
“These weren’t all plots and they weren’t all foiled,” he said.
This raises the question of how the NSA and the Obama administration can justify the surveillance program if they can’t point to cases where it was instrumental in protecting Americans from terrorists.
At the Guardian, Yochai Benkler explains that “all public evidence suggests that, from its inception in 2001 to this day, bulk collection has never made more than a marginal contribution to securing Americans from terrorism, despite its costs.”
Out of the 54 plots the NSA originally claimed were foiled, they only stuck with one case under pressure from Congress: the case of “Basaaly Moalin.” Benkler fills us in:
So, who is Moalin, on whose fate the NSA places the entire burden of justifying its metadata collection program? Did his capture foil a second 9/11?
A cabby from San Diego, Moalin had immigrated as a teenager from Somalia. In February, he was convicted of providing material assistance to a terrorist organization: he had transferred $8,500 to al-Shabaab in Somalia.
After the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi, few would argue that al-Shabaab is not a terrorist organization. But al-Shabaab is involved in a local war, and is not invested in attacking the US homeland. The indictment against Moalin explicitly stated that al-Shabaab’s enemies were the present Somali government and “its Ethiopian and African Union supporters”. Perhaps, it makes sense for prosecutors to pursue Somali Americans for doing essentially what some Irish Americans did to help the IRA; perhaps not. But this single successful prosecution, under a vague criminal statute, which stopped a few thousand dollars from reaching one side in a local conflict in the Horn of Africa, is the sole success story for the NSA bulk domestic surveillance program.
At the hearing, perhaps trying to bolster Alexander’s feeble defense of the program’s effectiveness, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper complained that “plots foiled” should not be the metric. He said:
“There’s another metric I would use; let’s call it the ‘peace of mind metric’. In the case of the Boston Marathon bomber, we were able to use these tools to determine whether there was, or was not, a subsequent plot in NYC.”
Clapper actually used the clearest example that his program offers Americans little real security – its failure to pick up the Tsarnaev brothers before they attacked – as a way of persuading us that we should use an amorphous and unmeasurable “peace of mind” metric; peace of mind we should gain from knowing that the same system that failed to detect the Boston bombers also detected no bombers in New York.
Beyond the NSA’s admission this month that they deliberately misled the public about the program’s effectiveness, Benkler points to other important evidence, like the declassified FISA court opinion in which Judge Walton considered the three, count ’em three, FBI cases in which bulk metadata collection was useful and wrote that this achievement “does not seem particularly significant.” He also cites “the consensus report authored by the five inspectors general of the Departments of Defense and Justice and the CIA, NSA, and Office of DNI,” which was not favorable. The DOJ wrote the utility of metadata was “limited” and the CIA all but declared the metadata useless and irrelevant.
Every few months, the NSA coerces private companies into giving private information on the communications of every single American. This infringement on our liberty and privacy, we’ve been told, is a necessary “balance” with security. But the government can’t point to a single reasonable case in which this grave violation of the Fourth Amendment made any American safer.
Senators Wyden, Udall, Paul, and Blumenthal are reportedly writing up legislation that would prohibit bulk collection of metadata. Let’s hope the fact-less fear-mongering doesn’t doesn’t derail it.