Report: Usefulness of NSA Mass Surveillance ‘Overblown’

White House and NSA's claim that 50 terror plots averted "misleading," says report

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NSA / Reuters

The National Security Agency headquarters building in Fort Meade, Md.

Ever since Edward Snowden’s leaks began revealing the extent of the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance—or “bulk collection”—programs last June, officials have defended the programs with one number: 50.

“We know of at least 50 threats that have been averted because of this information not just in the United States, but, in some cases, threats here in Germany. So lives have been saved,” President Obama said on a visit to Berlin. NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander made the same claim testifying before Congress.

But a new study out Monday from The New America Foundation says that claim is simply false, calling it “overblown, and even misleading.”

“Surveillance of American phone metadata has had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism and only the most marginal of impacts on preventing terrorist-related activity, such as fundraising for a terrorist group,” says the nonpartisan think tank’s report, titled “Do NSA’s Bulk Surveillance Programs Stop Terrorists?”

In an analysis of 225 al-Qaeda-linked individuals charged with terrorism in the U.S. since 9/11, the report found NSA mass surveillance of Americans telephone records—authorized under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act—“played an identifiable role in initiating, at most, 1.8 percent” of investigations.

The report acknowledges that in 28 percent of cases it reviewed, researchers couldn’t determine what methods initiated the investigation. But in many of those cases an informant played a role in the investigation, says the report.

ACLU Legislative Counsel Michelle Richardson told TIME the report “confirms that the numbers and examples the government has floated in support of its domestic spying programs are grossly inflated. More broadly though, it underlines how far the government has actually gotten away from the original lessons of 9/11. Instead of working on connecting the dots collected from traditional investigations, it has become obsessed with collecting ever more data whether it is useful or not.”

26 comments
gchu
gchu

G.W. Obama's NSA needs to be defunded and his FBI director replaced having forcefully defended NSA dragnet spying; also no political contributions to the Democratic Party or any Democrat seeking reelection.

AmericanPrivacy
AmericanPrivacy

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Yoshi
Yoshi

If everything's a secret, who's to say what the truth of their "saving lives" claim is?

chrispy
chrispy

Google is worse than the NSA. Period. So here's my list of alternatives:


DuckDuckGo

Ravetree

HushMail

...


Let me know of others you may have found. I'm on a mission to spread the word about good privacy-based websites/apps.

Ohiolib
Ohiolib

I guess we're still not ready to type the "L". Lie.

DeanKlovens
DeanKlovens

The kicker in all this if there was a sucessful attack, New Foundation would blame the NSA for not doing its job properly. C'mon people, all of us are not being spied upon; while NSA scrapes this information the major majority are not on their radar.  The US needs intelligence just as much as America needs the ACLU.Take this anyway you want but both are here to stay!

DanBruce
DanBruce

No private foundation can make such a claim about preventing terrorists attacks. They are just guessing, probably for big bucks or for fund-raising purposes. I trust my government more than I trust the academics at The New America Foundation.

mj25
mj25

If this information could be used to stop terrorist attacks and save lives is it such a bad thing? I don't agree with the misuse of it that is going on now but with some revision and auditing would it be such a bad thing to use it if it really did stop attacks and save lives?

ReneDemonteverde
ReneDemonteverde

Of course it is overblown. Nobody thought it would work. Just make America`s enemies promise not to use communication clandestinely or they must ask for permission to transmit messages in secret. Make sure they register properly not the content itself but just the time sent. That will enough. Al Qaeda, the Russians and Chinese will perhaps be embarrass for abusing our hospitality and quit spying on us. After all we already started teaching Emily Post etiquette to our Armed Forces. We might as well complete our lesson on good manners and niceties.

PaulDirks
PaulDirks

I have been on record from the beginning that if the NSA datamining programs were as effective as claimed then they would have foiled the Boston plot in time. As it is, "Boys with Toys" syndrome has taken over and we are being sold vaporware at millions of dollars per seat.


MikeKelter
MikeKelter

It's hard to prove a negative--things that didn't happen.


However, given the NSA track record, I find it highly unlikely that the NSA is competent to help prevent terrorism, which is the reason that Washington has thrown fabulous sums of money at the NSA bureaucracy and shredded the constitutional liberties of Americans.  Some high profile incidents suggest that the NSA is just another waste of taxpayer dollars:


1.  Despite the Russians warning the Americans about the Tsarnaev Bros., the Boston Bombers were able to kill and injure innocent Americans.


2.  The NSA failed to properly audit the access to information by Edward Snowden, a NSA employee and contractor.


3.  The NSA and FBI monitored phone and e-mail correspondences of Major Nidal Hassan, but proved impotent to stop the murder of American troops at Ft. Hood.


4.  The NSA and CIA were handed all the intel they needed to keep the undie bomber off the airplane in Amsterdam.  The undie-bomber got on the plane, detonated the bomb, and blew off his genitals.  When he meets Allah and gets his seventeen virgins, he's not going to have much to enjoy.


5.   How can you trust an organization like the NSA that builds these mega-complexes to house super computers, but fails to install adequate electrical service  to support the new equipment.


To their credit, the NSA is the only agency of goverment that listens to the American people. 

rmcnicoll
rmcnicoll

NSA Director Clapper.....Must be clapped in jail for lying to U. S. Senate Hearings under Oath !

JakeStone
JakeStone

Contrary to what Obama, Rep Peter King (R NY) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein(D CA) are telling the American Public. Metadata is a weapon of Government Power. Metadata tells the government who you associate with, when you associate, where you associate and for how long. The government should not have this information about you, because individuals in the government can use this data in the future to harass, suppress, intimidate and control its population. This goes against the core of who we are as Americans. Our forefathers gave us rights greater than the government; let’s not give them away for false sense of "security".

Incompetence in Obama’s administration (we have seen a lot this year, disappointed I vote for him) and luck of oversight of the NSA has allowed these young people in the NSA to do whatever they want just because they technically can even if it’s wrong.

jmac
jmac

This report can go to the FISA court and the Senators in the know.    They're the ones with classified information from NSA on whether the collecting of data was involved in stopping terrorists.  They and the president are the ones to suggest  specific rule chances on mega collection.  

Bencooper222
Bencooper222

28 percent of cases, they couldn't tell what the government used to find out who did it. That's 63 cases. There's 4 cases where we know. That's fairly close to 50 given that we don't know the exact methods of those 28 percent of cases. Let's have a real debate, not one based on research only 72 percent complete.

Heizzzenberg
Heizzzenberg

Color me shocked....our government skewing reports to match their interests...surprise surprise.

DavidLevinsn
DavidLevinsn

If you still think that the NSA spying is no big deal, just imagin what Governor Christie could do to his enemies with a system like the NSA has.

DavidLevinsn
DavidLevinsn

And this latest revelation is surprising to...exactly nobody.

jmac
jmac

@DeanKlovens Tonight on a discussion on CNN of NSA a tweet at the bottom said NSA could never even read all it's collecting.  Why in the world would CNN   put up such a dumb tweet when NSA is collecting data to look at phone patterns going oversees (or patterns from suspects they are looking at)  and then following the suspect -  is beyond my understanding.    


Then Christine Amanpour  compared NSA to Hoover.  Amanpour!   If there was a Hoover in Snowden's release of how America spies  -  I haven't heard it.   Where's her Hoover if she thinks Snowden was right to start a dialogue by releasing how we spy - and telling China.   Changing the FISA court so Roberts doesn't appoint all the members is worth the dump?    Having private enterprise keep the records and then we pay them is worth the dump?  

Duffman
Duffman

But if the goal of the exercise is: "to harass, suppress, intimidate and control its population" Then this is a great program that isn't going anywhere. It's cute that you think public opinion might change the slightest thing. On the bright side this makes 100% sure that the current elite in charge of the country never get dislodged. This is the only true bipartisan goal.

rmcnicoll
rmcnicoll

@jmac  Just J Edgar Hoover "Secret Spying on Public Figures".... Digitized ?

jmac
jmac

@rmcnicoll @jmac Digtized on whom?   No one is spying on "public figures" that we know of.  (Or American citizens that shouldn't have been look at that we know of - Larry Klayman doesn't hack it).    If Snowden had proof - where is it?    He dumped a lot of classified information.   Who is the J. Edgar Hoover?


You're never going to stop corruption of those at the top should they so want.  But you have to have proof! I'm sick of this being linked to Hoover.   There's an article today in the NY Times doing just that.   No one at the N.S.A. (or our government) has been shown to be anything like Hoover - and that's with a massive amount of Snowden documents that show the international community how we spy on them.   He's shown no Hoover.