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A new analysis of the National Security Agency’s data-collection programs suggests that some of its most controversial techniques may not be effective in stopping Al-Qaeda and other groups from attacking the United States.
The study, released Monday by the New America Foundation, checked claims by NSA officials and President Barack Obama that the agency’s bulk data-collection programs helped stop dozens of attacks on U.S. targets. The study examined records for investigations into 225 people who have been indicted, convicted or killed by the U.S. for their reported ties to Al-Qaeda and Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups like Al-Shabab after Sept. 11, 2001.
The review found that the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone metadata, justified under the Patriot Act, was responsible for initiating investigations in only four of the 225 cases detailed by the New America Foundation and that none of those four prevented attacks.
That counters claims by Obama and other administration officials that the program has prevented 50 terrorist attacks.
“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,” Obama said in Berlin in June. “So lives have been saved.”
Gen. Keith Alexander and Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., of the House Intelligence Committee, repeated similar claims.
The New America Foundation study suggests that those claims are inflated or misleading. It found that less controversial NSA programs — like monitoring of non–U.S. citizens suspected of being affiliated with Al-Qaeda or similar groups — played more crucial but still small roles in initiating investigations after 9/11.
The review found that traditional investigative means such as relying on communities, families and informants to tip off investigators and collecting information from other agencies like the FBI and CIA played much larger roles than metadata collection in the 225 cases.
The analysis concludes, “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.”
Accurately scrutinizing the vast amounts of information government agencies already have —instead of collecting more information — is the best way to make security in the U.S. more effective, the study argues.
“The overall problem for U.S. counterterrorism officials is not that they need the information from the bulk collection of phone data but that they don’t sufficiently understand or widely share the information they already possess that is derived from conventional law enforcement and intelligence techniques,” the report says. “This was true of the two 9/11 hijackers living in San Diego, and it is also the unfortunate pattern we have seen in several other significant terrorism cases.”
It’s unclear how far the government is willing to go to reform the NSA’s bulk-collection programs. Obama has repeatedly defended the administration’s actions. He acknowledged that the phone data collection program may be reformed at some point but has remained vague on what, if any, changes are planned.
Despite Obama’s hints that he may change the program, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court renewed the NSA’s authority to collect phone metadata earlier this month. And conflicting appeals-court rulings about the constitutionality of the programs could mean that their fate will ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
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