NSA snooping didn't make America much safer, report says

President Obama has said controversial NSA data-collection programs helped America avert dozens of threats. But the data suggest the programs' impact was minimal, a report says.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
White House press secretary Jay Carney speaks about topics including the NSA and intelligence gathering reforms during his daily news briefing at the White House in Washington Friday.

A new analysis by a nonpartisan think tank claims that President Obama’s justification for the National Security Agency’s controversial bulk collection of e-mails and phone data – that it makes America safer – is “overblown and even misleading.”

Mr. Obama has said that “at least 50 threats” have been averted by the surveillance program. But the New America Foundation cast doubt on that assertion in an analysis released Monday of 225 cases since 9/11 in which operatives recruited by Al Qaeda or an Al Qaeda-affiliated group were charged with an act of terrorism.

The report finds 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 investigation found that the American telephone metadata, which includes the phone numbers that originate and receive calls, as well as the time and date of those calls but not their content, “appears to have played an identifiable role in initiating, at most, 1.8 percent of these cases.”

This conclusion seems echoes one by the White House review panel commissioned by Mr. Obama in its report released Dec. 18. It found that “the information contributed to terrorist investigations by the use of section 215 telephony meta-data was not essential to preventing attacks.”

Indeed, the report argues that greater concern for US counterterrorism officials “is not that they need vaster amounts of information from the bulk surveillance programs, but that they don’t sufficiently understand or widely share the information they already possess that was derived from conventional law enforcement and intelligence techniques.”

Some lawmakers jumped on the findings. “The impact of that [metadata collection] program has been modest, I think, is fair to say,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D) of California, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, told MSNBC. “And I don’t think anyone can make the case it’s much more than that,” he added.

“It can’t justify the gathering of these millions of records when it can be done another way where the government doesn’t have to obtain all of that information.”

Obama is expected to announce reforms to NSA intelligence-gathering activities Friday. The aim, US officials say, will be to balance the calls for closer attention to American civil liberties with national security. 

Representative Schiff added that Congress would likely be a bystander to many of these reforms, which the president will likely be able to enact through executive order.

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