Based on an analysis of 225 al-Qaida-linked people charged with terrorism in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001, a public policy nonprofit contends that the embattled National Security Agency’s bulk collection of digital communications data has done little to protect the Nation from terrorists.
A report released Monday by the Washington-based New America Foundation details how a majority of the 225 terror cases were sparked by more traditional investigative assets, including “informants, tips from local communities, and targeted intelligence operations.”
In a press release accompanying the report, titled “Do NSA’s Bulk Surveillance Programs Stop Terrorists?,” the foundation acknowledges the few cases in which the bulk collection of so-called metadata has prevented terrorism.
“Indeed, the controversial bulk collection of American telephone metadata, which includes the telephone numbers that originate and receive calls, as well as the time and date of those calls but not their content, under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, appears to have played an identifiable role in initiating, at most, 1.8 percent of these cases,” the foundation notes. “NSA programs involving the surveillance of non-U.S. persons outside of the United States under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act played a role in 4.4 percent of the terrorism cases we examined, and NSA surveillance under an unidentified authority played a role in 1.3 percent of the cases we examined.”
But the according to the overall findings of their analysis, there is little benefit to the NSA’s mass privacy invasions, which have made American citizens and their foreign counterparts equally uncomfortable with the government’s spying power.
The bottom line, according to the report, is that good old-fashioned police work is still providing the government the most benefit in its pursuit of terror suspects.
“Regular FISA warrants not issued in connection with Section 215 or Section 702, which are the traditional means for investigating foreign persons, were used in at least 48 (21 percent) of the cases we looked at, although it’s unclear whether these warrants played an initiating role or were used at a later point in the investigation.”
The New American report goes on to explain a number of instances where U.S. officials have exaggerated the usefulness of bulk collection of digital communications data in an effort to justify the program’s existence.
The organization carefully examined the case of Basaaly Moalina, a San Diego cab driver who in 2007 and 2008 provided $8,500 to an al-Qaida affiliate, which is the main case government officials have repeatedly used to justify the NSA’s phone records collection.
From the New American Foundation:
According to the government, the database of American phone metadata allows intelligence authorities to quickly circumvent the traditional burden of proof associated with criminal warrants, thus allowing them to “connect the dots” faster and prevent future 9/11-scale attacks. Yet in the Moalin case, after using the NSA’s phone database to link a number in Somalia to Moalin, the FBI waited two months to begin an investigation and wiretap his phone. Although it’s unclear why there was a delay between the NSA tip and the FBI wiretapping, court documents show there was a two-month period in which the FBI was not monitoring Moalin’s calls, despite official statements that the bureau had Moalin’s phone number and had identified him. , 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 foundation also points out three other terror cases in which the government has overhyped the role of bulk surveillance in the apprehension of dangerous suspects.
The New America report comes just days before President Barack Obama’s planned Jan. 17 announcement about whether he plans to use the power of the executive to alter the NSA’s spy programs based on the findings of a Dec. 18 report produced by a White House advisory panel.