NSA phone-record collection had “no discernible impact” on counterterrorism

posted at 12:41 pm on January 13, 2014 by Ed Morrissey

Consider this confirmation of an earlier analysis reported by the Washington Post and NBC in the pre-Christmas doldrums. Despite repeated claims by the White House that the NSA’s phone collection program may have prevented as many as 50 terrorist attacks against the US, another independent study found that the surveillance “has had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism” (via the Daily Beast):

An analysis of 225 terrorism cases inside the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has concluded that the bulk collection of phone records by the National Security Agency “has had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism.”

In the majority of cases, traditional law enforcement and investigative methods provided the tip or evidence to initiate the case, according to the study by the New America Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit group.

The study, to be released Monday, corroborates the findings of a White House-appointed review group, which said last month that the NSA counterterrorism program “was not essential to preventing attacks” and that much of the evidence it did turn up “could readily have been obtained in a timely manner using conventional [court] orders.”

That’s not to say that the report is entirely conclusive, either.  The New America Foundation took a look at 225 cases in which individuals were charged with “jihadist terrorism.” Only 1.8% of these cases — four, for those who don’t want to do the math themselves — involved Section 215 surveillance.  Three other cases involved “NSA surveillance under an unknown authority,” but most surprising might be that only 4.4% of cases were detected under the non-controversial Section 702 authority for surveilling foreign phone calls.

NAF offers this graph to depict the context:

naf-nsa-graph

What has been the most effective method? Of those explicitly stated, it’s “if you see something, say something.” Community and family tips accounted for 17.8% of the origins of investigations, followed closely by 16% started by other informants. However, 27.6% are categorized as “unclear” — the largest single category, which makes the analysis much less reliable,  and might raise questions about how the NSA got those FISA warrants.

Still, there were four cases unearthed through Section 215 (and possibly more in the “unclear” category). Is that enough to justify the program as a necessary evil to prevent worse evil from prevailing? Former acting CIA Director Michael Morell argued three weeks ago that one case is enough:

Another misperception involved the review group’s view of the efficacy of the Section 215 program; many commentators said it found no value in the program. The report accurately said that the program has not been “essential to preventing attacks” since its creation. But that is not the same thing as saying the program is not important to national security, which is why we did not recommend its elimination.

Had the program been in place more than a decade ago, it would likely have prevented 9/11. And it has the potential to prevent the next 9/11. It needs to be successful only once to be invaluable. It also provides some confidence that overseas terrorist activity does not have a U.S. nexus. The metadata program did exactly that during my last days at the CIA this summer, in the midst of significant threat reports emanating from Yemen. By examining the metadata, we were able to determine that certain known terrorists were most likely not in phone contact with anyone in the United States during this specific period of concern.

Personally, I would expand the Section 215 program to include all telephone metadata (the program covers only a subset of the total calls made) as well as e-mail metadata (which is not in the program) to better protect the United States. This is a personal view; it is not something the review group opined on or even discussed. Such an expansion should, of course, fall under the same constraints recommended by the review group.

The idea that we can do a better job protecting privacy and civil liberties at no expense to national security is also incorrect. The review group believes there will be costs but that they will be manageable. This trade-off is at the crux of what President Obama needs to decide about whether and how to amend current programs.

Take the Section 215 program again. The review group’s recommendations will, if adopted by the president, slow the process of searching the metadata. No doubt about it. It will take time to prepare a justification for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, for the court to render a decision and for the NSA to reach out to the private holder of the data. But the review panel believes this loss of flexibility is both manageable — we allow for exceptions in emergency situations, for example — and worth the protection of personal freedom it provides.

That will be the debate. Barack Obama has to decide soon what reforms to accept for NSA’s operations. So far, though, the controversial Section 215 program hasn’t provided much to support its continuing operations, but any executive that ends it takes the enormous political risk of having that decision get associated with any successful attack in the future — which is exactly what Morell argues will happen. I suspect that Obama will choose the safe path of reforming Section 215 rather than eliminating it.


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Told you often.

Name one terrorist they got.

Schadenfreude on January 13, 2014 at 12:42 PM

But there will be little support from the politicians to end this program. The people need to put pressure to end this violation of the 4th amendment.

Oil Can on January 13, 2014 at 12:46 PM

Interesting to learn if those intercepts increased Domestically after the 2008 Election or have been consistent throughout.

BlaxPac on January 13, 2014 at 12:47 PM

Proof:

Boston bombers.

ToddPA on January 13, 2014 at 12:47 PM

This Friday, the rat-eared wonder is supposed to detail his plans for curbing (not eliminating) NSA snooping on Americans. It will be interesting to see if it goes far enough to bury some of his negative numbers or if it just riles people up again after the NSA scandal has lost some of its sting.

Happy Nomad on January 13, 2014 at 12:49 PM

C’mon, it’s bound to be just as effective as the TSA……

el hombre on January 13, 2014 at 12:51 PM

I’d say it’s not about preventing terror, it’s about power. Once again, the government has lied to Americans and achieved nothing.

scalleywag on January 13, 2014 at 12:53 PM

They can’t stop terrorists when they get two phone calls from Russia, it’s a lead pipe cinch the only thing data collection and storage is helping is some large donor. Or if I’m really feeling cynical, political opposition. Nah, he wouldn’t do that./

Cindy Munford on January 13, 2014 at 12:56 PM

and then hotair will run out of material to bash the President on…that’s what you’re really afraid of, right?

nonpartisan on November 19, 2013 at 4:47 PM

Chris of Rights on January 13, 2014 at 12:56 PM

NSA phone-record collection had “no discernible impact” on counterterrorism

But it sure has had a TREMENDOUS IMPACT on SCOTUS decisions. Worth every penny to Hussein and Co.

riddick on January 13, 2014 at 12:58 PM

NSA phone-record collection had “no discernible impact” on counterterrorism

…well no!…it’s to monitor US Citizens!

KOOLAID2 on January 13, 2014 at 1:00 PM

Obama’s OFA has access to every phone and email record of all possible GOP national candidates, plus every sitting Congressman.

Think about that.

faraway on January 13, 2014 at 1:05 PM

Obama’s OFA has access to every phone and email record of all possible GOP national candidates, plus every sitting Congressman.

Think about that.

faraway on January 13, 2014 at 1:05 PM

And John Roberts. I didn’t used to be a conspiracy theorist, but given what we actually know, it’s hard not to suspect the worst.

Fenris on January 13, 2014 at 1:10 PM

I’d say it’s not about preventing terror, it’s about power. Once again, the government has lied to Americans and achieved nothing.

scalleywag on January 13, 2014 at 12:53 PM

It’s pretty obvious the program is geared primarily towards monitoring (and probably eventually harassment) of the government’s domestic critics, as opposed to actual criminals or terrorists.

Doomberg on January 13, 2014 at 1:13 PM

He will never get blamed…..sorry….its the truth….

cmsinaz on January 13, 2014 at 1:14 PM

I don’t care if it works or not. It shouldn’t be allowed. Stop and frisk also shouldn’t be allowed regardless of how effective it is.

Allowing law enforcement agencies to violate constitutional rights can will be a very effective way of eliminating quite a bit of crime freedom, but we don’t want to give them that power. It needs to stop.

blink on January 13, 2014 at 12:55 PM

affenhauer on January 13, 2014 at 1:16 PM

Ed,

I know this is hyper-tangential not to mention O.T. but do you think, with all your clout, you could pass the word along to the Dark Forces who run Town Hall (cue Darth Vader theme) to cease and desist with the Duck Dynasty pop-ups?

I know you’re a lowly deck hand on this cruise ship, but for those of us who have booked steerage on the S. S. Hot Gas, this item is becoming beyond tedious.

(Almost as tedious as my torturing of the nautical metaphor.)

Otherwise have your people get with my people and we’ll do lunch.

Ciao, baby, kisses!

~TWP

The War Planner on January 13, 2014 at 1:18 PM

Oh, and let’s not forget the nutcase that shot up the Navy yard. The police tried to give the government a heads up there also. Although the police giving crazy a pass on a regular basis is another whole topic.

Cindy Munford on January 13, 2014 at 1:19 PM

(..the previous meant reverently.)

The War Planner on January 13, 2014 at 1:19 PM

Are we really sure the massive spying by the US government on American living on US soil is solely focused on stopping terrorists such as Al Qeada?
Perhaps the Obama administration should be taken at its word that the Tea Party is a terror group? They have published policies that determined Catholics are terror related. Perhaps the NSA spying was focused on better intimidating Obama’s political opponents?
I think the 2012 election win was partly attributable to Obama’s suppressing his opponents via the powers of the federal government.

richardb on January 13, 2014 at 1:24 PM

What has been the most effective method? Of those explicitly stated, it’s “if you see something, say something.” Community and family tips accounted for 17.8% of the origins of investigations, followed closely by 16% started by other informants. However, 27.6% are categorized as “unclear” — the largest single category, which makes the analysis much less reliable, and might raise questions about how the NSA got those FISA warrants.

Ed Morrissey on January 13, 2014 at 12:41 PM

.
This should … alarm every American. I guess on average, we’re mostly just too comfortable to:

1) bother trying to learn about any of this.

2) get out of the recliner and do something, even when an alarm is sounded.
.

listens2glenn on January 13, 2014 at 1:29 PM

Student arrested with gun at Fayetteville school

http://abclocal.go.com/wtvd/story?section=news/local&id=9391438

davidk on January 13, 2014 at 1:32 PM

No
Security
Advantage

Shy Guy on January 13, 2014 at 1:48 PM

And let’s not forget that in the midst of all this, the United States of America has created the most invasive, comprehensive and largest, police state in the history of mankind. In contradiction to our constitution and our values as a free society.

But by all means, let’s discuss the effectiveness of that accomplishment…..

KMC1 on January 13, 2014 at 1:55 PM

http://tinyurl.com/km6qwvb

(The URL was eaten by the mod.)

davidk on January 13, 2014 at 2:04 PM

I’m sure all the “chatter” is interesting and makes them feel all spyish and all, but as others have said, when they IGNORE avowed terrorists in our midst, why do we need the NSA?

We’re not even trading security for freedom! We’re trading it for chatter!

PattyJ on January 13, 2014 at 2:05 PM

Can we not use a report like this to force another vote on the Amash amendment? It fell only 3-4 votes short last time. My congresswoman was one of the final fence sitters who voted “no”. She swears that the NSA spying on citizens has thwarted dozens of terrorist schemes. She can’t name one, but “experts” have assured her it is so.

Let’s push for another vote on Amash.

kpguru on January 13, 2014 at 2:08 PM

Had the program been in place more than a decade ago, it would likely have prevented 9/11. And it has the potential to prevent the next 9/11. It needs to be successful only once to be invaluable.

Michael Morell former acting director of the CIA and current member of President Obama’s task force on surveillance

.
( E X P L E T I V E ), you lousy (multiple expletives).

If the GORELICH MEMO hadn’t been imposed, “it would likely have prevented 9/11.”
.

Personally, I would expand the Section 215 program to include all telephone metadata (the program covers only a subset of the total calls made) as well as e-mail metadata (which is not in the program) to better protect the United States. This is a personal view; it is not something the review group opined on or even discussed. Such an expansion should, of course, fall under the same constraints recommended by the review group.

Michael Morell former acting director of the CIA and current member of President Obama’s task force on surveillance

.
Well, if the “review group” hasn’t discussed it, and it would fall under any ‘constraints’ they would recommend anyhow, we can all relax, and quit worrying.
.

The idea that we can do a better job protecting privacy and civil liberties at no expense to national security is also incorrect. The review group believes there will be costs but that they will be manageable. This trade-off is at the crux of what President Obama needs to decide about whether and how to amend current programs.

Michael Morell former acting director of the CIA and current member of President Obama’s task force on surveillance

.
Money line, right there.
.
Oh, wait . . . he said the “review group” believes that the costs (to ‘freedom’, I presume) would be “manageable.”

Never mind … I guess I over reacted to that one, as well.

Silly me . . . . . . .

listens2glenn on January 13, 2014 at 2:11 PM

http://tinyurl.com/km6qwvb

(The URL was eaten by the mod.)

davidk on January 13, 2014 at 2:04 PM

.
Thank God for tinyurl.com … where would we be, without it ?

. . . . . : )

listens2glenn on January 13, 2014 at 2:16 PM

The reason NSA and the government likes the meta data is because the information gleaned could have prevented 9/11 IF there were no “Gorelick Wall” preventing interagency communication.

The problem with their reasoning is that, just like with satellite phones, the terrorists learn, too. The top really bad guys don’t use phones to plan attacks anymore, they know we are watching. Now that they know we are on to the “shared email account” trick (all have the password to the account and communicate by modifying a draft so no email is actually sent with any incriminating information), they probably don’t do that either.

Like the generals, the spooks are fighting the last war.

Adjoran on January 13, 2014 at 2:33 PM

Bull manure.

rlwo2008 on January 13, 2014 at 3:50 PM