New Report Throws Doubt On Intelligence Value of Mass Surveillance

New Report Throws Doubt On Intelligence Value of Mass Surveillance
New Report Throws Doubt On Intelligence Value of Mass Surveillance

President Obama is due to announce his proposals following publication of the task force recommendations on the NSA surveillance programs this Friday. He is expected to modify but not materially reduce the programs. "As the president finalizes plans for a speech on Friday announcing his proposals to change intelligence operations and oversight," reported the LA Times yesterday, "the widespread agreement at the most senior levels of the White House about the program's value appears to be driving policy. As a result, the administration seems likely to modify, but not stop, the gathering of billions of phone call logs."

The official viewpoint stems from Gen Keith Alexander's testimony to Congress that: “the information gathered from these programs provided the U.S. government with critical leads to help prevent over 50 potential terrorist events in more than 20 countries around the world.” This was repeated by Obama in Berlin: “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. So lives have been saved.”

But a new report from the non-profit New America Foundation (NAF) yesterday challenges this viewpoint. NAF analyzed 225 al-Qaeda related arrests in the US since 9/11 and found that NSA surveillance played an insignificant role in their identification. "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," concludes the report.

Delving deeper into the actual statistics, NAF found that the collection of Americans' metadata "appears to have played an identifiable role in initiating, at most, 1.8 percent of these cases." Furthermore, "the surveillance of non-U.S. persons outside of the United States under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act played a role in 4.4 percent of the terrorism cases we examined, and NSA surveillance under an unidentified authority played a role in 1.3 percent of the cases we examined."

In reality, the government has been slowly withdrawing from its claims of '50 threats that have been averted,' and now concentrates on just one: the arrest of San Diego cab driver Basaaly Moalin. Describing the withdrawal from '50 threats' to 'a good insurance policy,' TechDirt explains, "There was one 'event' prevented via the program on US soil, and it was a taxi driver in San Diego sending some money to a terrorist group in Somalia, rather than an actual terrorist attack."

But the NAF research even throws doubt on this event. It points out that the government claims that the collection of metadata is necessary to allow them to connect the dots in realtime. "Yet in the Moalin case," it says, "after using the NSA’s phone database to link a number in Somalia to Moalin, the FBI waited two months to begin an investigation and wiretap his phone."

NAF concludes that the problem for US intelligence services is not that they need more information from surveillance, "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."

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