Judge And Intelligence Task Force Both Seem Stunned By Lack Of Evidence That Bulk Phone Collection Program Stops Terrorists

from the complete-failure dept

For months now, NSA defenders have argued repeatedly that the bulk metadata programs were necessary to stop terrorist attacks. For a while they were throwing around the claim of “54 thwarted terrorist events” which some (falsely) pretended meant 54 thwarted attacks. However, the numbers have been debunked repeatedly by people looking into them. Multiple Senators have debunked the idea that the bulk metadata collection was useful. Senator Patrick Leahy said that his own review of a classified list of what the program was necessary for did not show that it was used to thwart terrorist attacks. Separately, Senators Ron Wyden, Mark Udall and Martin Heinrich went so far as to file an amicus brief stating that they’ve yet to see any evidence that the program has been useful.

So it’s been pretty obvious to many of us that the claims of the necessity of this particular program have always been on shaky grounds — but those calling bull on the program were widely seen as being already against those programs, and the NSA hadn’t had it’s “day in court” — so to speak — to defend the usefulness of the programs. That’s partly why the two big moves against the NSA program from the past few days are so interesting. In both the district court ruling against the NSA and in the White House’s own independent task force’s proposals for reform, the US government had clear opportunities to defend the programs — and in both cases, it appears that the court and the panel were shocked to find that the NSA basically had absolutely nothing to show to suggest the programs were actually useful.

In the ruling by Judge Richard Leon, there’s a very telling footnote, number 65, where he notes the following:

The Government could have requested permission to present additional, potentially classified evidence in camera, but it chose not to do so. Although the Government has publicly asserted that the NSA’s surveillance programs have prevented fifth-four terrorist attacks, no proof of that has been put before me.

The judge then points to multiple sources (including those that we mentioned earlier) debunking the claims.

But the response from the review panel — which, again, included a recent former CIA director and anti-terorrism Czar in the White House — was even more telling. It appears they fully expected some details on how these programs had been used to stop terrorists, but the fact that the NSA couldn’t show any such evidence seemed to leave them flabbergasted. Here’s panel member Geoffrey Stone explaining to NBC the shock the panel felt:

“It was, ‘Huh, hello? What are we doing here?’” said Geoffrey Stone, a University of Chicago law professor, in an interview with NBC News. “The results were very thin.”

While Stone said the mass collection of telephone call records was a “logical program” from the NSA’s perspective, one question the White House panel was seeking to answer was whether it had actually stopped “any [terror attacks] that might have been really big.”

“We found none,” said Stone.

Given all this, are NSA defenders like Rep. Mike Rogers, who has flung around the totally bogus 54 number, even directly in an appeal to block the defunding of the program, still going to lie to the American public in claiming this program is necessary? A court and an investigative panel, both of whom found that the claim is completely unsubstantiated.

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Comments on “Judge And Intelligence Task Force Both Seem Stunned By Lack Of Evidence That Bulk Phone Collection Program Stops Terrorists”

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27 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Ben Franklin got it right

If the 54 “events” number actually represented the prevention of 9/11 equivalents fatality-wise, i.e., about 3,000 death, then the percentage of the U.S. populace saved would be about

p = 100 x (54 x 3,000 / 300,000,000)
p = 100 x (54 / 100,000)
p = 54 / 1,000
p = .054%

So, NSA would have “saved” .054% of the citizenry at the price of deeply violating the civil rights of 100% of them. Imagine how much less sympathy I have for NSA’s actions since the demonstrated value is 0 instead of 54.

My numbers are easily AS stupidly meaningless as anything the government has offered but not MORE.

If we don’t start hanging these guys, We, The People, will well-and-truly deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

madasahatter (profile) says:

Logical Fallacy

I suspect the origin was the NSA had difficulty uncovering any terrorist activity by targeted monitoring of various groups. So they assumed if they monitored all communication they would find the activity. Two problems need to be addressed: the assumption that the terrorists needed to always communicate via electronic means and adding more chaff is going to make finding the needle easier. The first issue assumes the terrorist planning cannot occur mostly in person or via letters and packages. Most terrorist attacks are not planned like military operations or use large numbers of people. So coordination is much easier and less likely to need extensive electronic communications. Adding more noise only makes it harder to find the signal since the vast majority of all communications has absolutely nothing to do with any threat to the anyone.

I submit the most likely way a plot would be discovered is not by monitoring electronic communications Other activities such as purchasing usually large amounts of fertilizer or other chemicals not typically purchased in the quantities needed or at all by the average person for any innocent purpose are more likely to the tip-off. Often these weird purchases are reported by suspicious store clerks.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: how many "threats" were invented by the fbi themselves?

Given one of the ‘super dangerous threats’ that the program was ‘vital’ to stopping was some guy wiring money to a group overseas, they didn’t set the bar very high as to what exactly counts as a ‘terrorist threat’, so I could totally believe that they’d pad out the numbers with their own stopped plots.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

“ootb” is meaningless since it used by several distinct people to more or less conciously troll by writing a longer serenade about how Google is the enemy. Some of them use lines, but not all of them!

In this case the text is way too short and straight into a character assasination by association. I mean, this AC seems to be part of a longer smear campaign to demotivate the authors on this page given the regularity of such nastyness.

Anonymous Coward says:

This whole business of assuming that all the terrorists are going to communicate by electronic means is a false assumption to begin with. If it is a terrorist cell, then it is small. They are already and have been aware for years that the electronic communications are monitored. That means they will meet face to face, without any cell phones present to do their planning. Good luck on picking up those plans electronically when they aren’t using those methods.

Rather the whole point of all this spying on Americans isn’t because of terrorists but because they don’t trust the public. The reason you would not trust the public is if you are doing things you know well they won’t like and will react unfavorably to when they find out. It’s their early warning system basically.

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