NSA Phone Data Collection Made No Difference to National Security

Saturday, December 21, 2013
(photo: J. Scott Applewhite, AP)

The National Security Agency’s (NSA) massive collection of Americans’ phone data did little to help protect the country from terrorist attacks, according to experts selected by President Barack Obama to review the agency’s controversial surveillance methods.


In its newly released report (pdf), the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies offered pointed criticism of the NSA’s phone-information collecting.


“Our review suggests that the information contributed to terrorist investigations by the use of section 215 telephony meta-data was not essential to preventing attacks and could readily have been obtained in a timely manner using conventional section 215 orders,” the report says.


The independent panel members further stated that the “telephony meta-data program has made only a modest contribution to the nation’s security…and there has been no instance in which NSA could say with confidence that the outcome would have been different without the section 215 telephony meta-data program.”


Section 215 of the Patriot Act [pdf] allows the government to ask the FISA Court to compel businesses to hand over user records, provided they are “'relevant' to an authorized preliminary or full investigation to obtain foreign intelligence information not concerning a U.S. person or to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities.” Critics say that this provision has been broadly interpreted by the government to target Americans who have no ties to terrorist activities.


The panel members didn’t stop there with their negative assessment of the NSA’s vacuuming and storing of vast amounts of people’s personal phone-call data.


“We cannot discount the risk, in light of the lessons of our own history, that at some point in the future, high-level government officials will decide that this massive database of extraordinarily sensitive private information is there for the plucking. Americans must never make the mistake of wholly ‘trusting’ our public officials,” the report says.


The group even referenced Congress’ investigation of the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1970s after the agency was caught spying on Americans and breaking the law.


“As the Church Committee observed more than 35 years ago, when the capacity of government to collect massive amounts of data about individual Americans was still in its infancy, the ‘massive centralization of…information creates a temptation to use it for improper purposes, threatens to ‘chill’ the exercise of First Amendment rights, and is inimical to the privacy of citizens.’”


In light of this harsh assessment, Obama must now decide how hard he should fight lawmakers seeking drastic reforms of the NSA, Politico’s Josh Gerstein posited.


“If collecting huge volumes of metadata on telephone calls from, to and within the United States doesn’t bring much benefit, just how much political capital is Obama willing to spend to keep the program going?” Gerstein wrote.


With the release of the report coming only two days after U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon’s legal ruling that cast strong doubt on the constitutionality of the NSA program—and against the backdrop of public disapproval and efforts in the U.S Congress to reign in the agency’s surveillance operations—Senate Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) this week put it in a nutshell in his address to the U.S. Senate:


“The message is very clear. The message to the NSA is now coming from every branch of government, from every corner of our nation, ‘NSA you have gone too far.’ [The report says] what many of us have been saying, that just because we can collect massive amounts of data doesn’t mean we should do so.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff, Danny Biederman


To Learn More:

Barack Obama’s NSA Fine-Print Problem (by Josh Gerstein, Politico)

White House Panel Slams NSA, Says Mass Spying Is Unnecessary (Washington’s Blog)

Liberty and Security in a Changing World (The President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies) (pdf)


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