Study: NSA data hoarding doesn't stop terror attacks

The New America Foundation, like the White House's review group, challenges agency claims about national security

Published January 13, 2014 6:29PM (EST)

Aligning with the findings of a review committee appointed by the White House, a report published Monday from the New America Foundation found that the NSA's bulk collection of phone data has not prevented terror attacks.

NAF carried out "an in-depth analysis of 225 individuals recruited by al-Qaida or a like-minded group or inspired by al-Qaeda’s ideology, and charged in the United States with an act of terrorism since 9/11." The study found that traditional investigative methods, such as the use of informants, tips from local communities, and targeted intelligence operations, provided the initial impetus for investigations in the majority of cases, while the contribution of NSA’s bulk surveillance programs to these cases was minimal.

The think tank's conclusions are strong, challenging government claims that metadata collections of U.S. telephonic communications is necessary to national security:

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. 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 – that of Basaaly Moalin, a San Diego cabdriver who in 2007 and 2008 provided $8,500 to al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia – calls into question the necessity of the Section 215 bulk collection program.

The findings of the NAF and the White House's NSA advisory committee not only call into question NSA practices brought to light by Edward Snowden. They highlight the ease with which the administration has been willing to deceive the American public about the necessity of surveillance dragnets. NSA officials had claimed that phone data collections had been necessary in thwarting as many as 54 terror plots. NSA director Keith Alexander was forced to admit that the figure was fabricated during a congressional hearing. At best, one case can be used in support of the efficacy of phone data hoarding for preventing terror plots.

A familiar pattern is emerging, reminiscent of arguments around Bush-era torture and rendition practices. At first, empty claims about counterterrorism and national security were presented as a catch-all defense of human rights abuses. These claims soon unraveled when details of terror cases revealed that torture had, if anything, further jeopardized U.S. national security through stoking anti-American sentiments. Similarly, claims about the necessity of collecting data on pretty much every communication within and going out of the U.S. are beginning to unravel once scrutiny is applied. And, need we be reminded: We can thank Edward Snowden for bringing dragnet surveillance practices to light. Without the whistle-blower, the spy agency's fallacious lines about national security would likely have gone unscrutinized.

By Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email

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