“The message to the NSA is now coming from every branch of government and from every corner of our nation: NSA, You have gone too far.”
Those are the words of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) from the Senate chamber yesterday. And he’s right.
The metadata program, in which the NSA collects, stores, and analyzes the call records of virtually all Americans without individualized court approval or warrants, has proven one of the most controversial program revealed in the leaks from Edward Snowden. And from the very beginning, it has been challenged.
In response to intense criticisms of overreach, NSA officials claimed that the bulk metadata program had helped foil up to 54 terrorist plots. Patrick Leahy and others in the Senate pressed them on that claim, which ultimately resulted in the NSA revoking it unapologetically.
“There is no evidence that [bulk] phone records collection helped to thwart dozens or even several terrorist plots,” Leahy asked NSA chief Keith Alexander in October.
“These weren’t all plots and they weren’t all foiled,” he said. In other words, our initial claim that this program has thwarted terrorist plots was untrue.
Then, earlier this week a federal judge found the NSA’s bulk metadata program to be likely unconstitutional, adding that “the Government does not cite a single instance in which analysis of the NSA’s bulk metadata collection actually stopped an imminent attack.” Judge Richard Leon said that the program’s apparent lack of effectiveness and utility helped lead him to the conclusion that it is a violation of Americans’ right to privacy.
Presumably, the government lawyers fighting to keep the metadata program would have had a profound incentive to demonstrate to the judge how vital and useful this program is. But they couldn’t offer any such justification.
Finally, President Obama’s not-so-independent panel tasked with performing oversight and suggesting reforms of NSA programs in light of Snowden’s leaks released its findings this week. The panel’s 300-page report includes 46 recommended reforms, and also includes this little nugget: “Our review suggests that the information contributed to terrorist investigations by the use of section 215 telephony meta-data was not essential to preventing attacks and could readily have been obtained in a timely manner using conventional section 215 orders.”
Vacuuming up all that data the National Security Agency collects in its call-tracking database, the panel says, hasn’t actually done much to protect the country from terrorism.
And so the panel’s report raises a pointed question: If collecting huge volumes of metadata on telephone calls from, to and within the United States doesn’t bring much benefit, just how much political capital is Obama willing to spend to keep the program going?
That’s a darn good question.