CREDIT: Flickr user Susan Melkisethian
There’s one line in the middle of a sweeping new study of the most controversial National Security Agency (NSA) program revealed by Edward Snowden that sums up the report’s central conclusion: “surveillance of American phone metadata has had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism.”
That’s a bold claim, but there’s a lot in the research to back it up. The researchers at the New America Foundation, a DC think tank, compiled a database of 225 counterterrorism cases where U.S. citizens or residents were either indicted on terrorism charges or killed before they could be charged. They then used court documents, public reporting, and any other relevant research to figure out what alerted the government to the case and where the government got the evidence it needed to go to court.
They found that the searches under the two provisions that purportedly authorize NSA “bulk collection” of U.S. citizens’ metadata, either under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act directly authorizing bulk collection or the more indirect Section 702 of the 2008 FISA Amendments Act, were far less helpful in catching alleged terrorists than the NSA and Obama administration may have said. Here are the five main takeaways from their research and what this should tell us about the debate over reforming the NSA going forward:
1. The NSA metadata programs rarely find terrorists on their own. The New America researchers found that only 14 cases out of the 225 — under 6.5 percent — were launched because of either metadata program. The majority of indictments grew out of more normal law enforcement tools — an informant (16 percent), a tip from family members or communities (17.8 percent), intelligence gathered by a non-NSA intel agency (8 percent), and so on. The public record, it seems, just doesn’t support the claim that the NSA collection of U.S. citizen metadata plays a crucial role in helping the government find terrorists that otherwise would have flown below the radar.
2. NSA metadata collection isn’t totally useless; it’s just not very useful. When you start to look at the specific cases that metadata surveillance played a key role in, the picture gets grimmer for the NSA. The New America researchers found that metadata searches never led to an arrest that actually prevented a terrorist attack. Take, for instance, the arrest of Basaaly Moalin — the only case, according to NSA Director Keith Alexander’s sworn testimony, metadata surveillance may have sparked an investigation that stopped “terrorist activity.” All the government found on Moalin was $8,500 donated to Somali terrorist group al-Shabaab; “the case involved no attack plot anywhere in the world,” according to New America’s review. In almost all of the cases profiled by New America, metadata surveillance played a supporting role, unnecessarily displaced traditional investigative methods, or failed to uncover a serious plot.