Since the public revelation of the NSA's phone record collection in June of 2013, government officials have defended the program, emphasizing its necessity in finding and thwarting terrorist plots. The New America Foundation released a report this week that undermines such claims and reveals the futility of the NSA's bulk surveillance in preventing terrorist attacks in the United States. The study reviews the investigative methods used in each of the 225 terrorism cases since September 11, 2001. The study also evaluates the significance of the NSA's collection of phone and email records in preventing these terrorist activities.
The results show that traditional investigative methods-- including community or family tips, routine law enforcement, and informants-- initiated 60% of the cases. The NSA's bulk surveillance identified only one terrorist plot, which did not involve an actual planned attack on the United States. That case, mentioned by NSA director Gen. Alexander in his testimony to a Senate Judiciary Committee, involved a San Diego cabdriver named Basaaly Moalin, who was charged with three co-conspirators for sending $8,500 to the al-Qaeda affiliate in Somlia, al-Shabaab. In the Moalin case, the FBI used the NSA phone database to link Moalin with a phone number in Somalia.
However, the FBI waited two months after receiving the tip from the NSA before wiretapping Moalin's phone. The government has defended the NSA's bulk collection of phone records by asserting that the program allows intelligence authorities to move quickly when a threat is identified, rather than waiting to meet the burden of proof required for criminal warrants. The delay in Moalin's case undermines this pervasive claim about both the purpose and necessity of the NSA's spying programs. In the one case that used the phone record database, it was not applied to prevent an attack and it did not speed up process of apprehending the individual in question. The report concludes,
Surveillance of American phone metadata has had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism and only the most marginal impacts on preventing terrorist-related activity, such as fundraising for a terrorist group. Furthermore, 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... calls into question the necessity of the Section 215 bulk collection program.
Intelligence agencies are tasked with the challenging responsibility of protecting us from terrorist threats, so they would be wise to devote their time and resources to methods that have actually been proven effective. Instead, they have chosen to violate constitutional rights while frightening Americans into compliance through the propagation of myths about the importance and efficacy of spying programs. Investigations like the New America Foundation's study play a crucial role in exposing these myths. Moreover, this information helps point the government, organizations, and concerned Americans towards solutions that do not require a compromise of privacy for unproven claims of security.