All Three Branches of Gov’t Agree: NSA’s Bulk Metadata Collection Doesn’t Thwart Terrorism

John Glaser, December 19, 2013
NSA Headquarters, Fort Meade, MD.

NSA Headquarters, Fort Meade, MD.

“The message to the NSA is now coming from every branch of government and from every corner of our nation: NSA, You have gone too far.”

Those are the words of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) from the Senate chamber yesterday. And he’s right.

The metadata program, in which the NSA collects, stores, and analyzes the call records of virtually all Americans without individualized court approval or warrants, has proven one of the most controversial program revealed in the leaks from Edward Snowden. And from the very beginning, it has been challenged.

In response to intense criticisms of overreach, NSA officials claimed that the bulk metadata program had helped foil up to 54 terrorist plots. Patrick Leahy and others in the Senate pressed them on that claim, which ultimately resulted in the NSA revoking it unapologetically.

“There is no evidence that [bulk] phone records collection helped to thwart dozens or even several terrorist plots,” Leahy asked NSA chief Keith Alexander in October.

“These weren’t all plots and they weren’t all foiled,” he said. In other words, our initial claim that this program has thwarted terrorist plots was untrue.

Then, earlier this week a federal judge found the NSA’s bulk metadata program to be likely unconstitutional, adding that “the Government does not cite a single instance in which analysis of the NSA’s bulk metadata collection actually stopped an imminent attack.” Judge Richard Leon said that the program’s apparent lack of effectiveness and utility helped lead him to the conclusion that it is a violation of Americans’ right to privacy.

Presumably, the government lawyers fighting to keep the metadata program would have had a profound incentive to demonstrate to the judge how vital and useful this program is. But they couldn’t offer any such justification.

Finally, President Obama’s not-so-independent panel tasked with performing oversight and suggesting reforms of NSA programs in light of Snowden’s leaks released its findings this week. The panel’s 300-page report includes 46 recommended reforms, and also includes this little nugget: “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.”

Politico reporter Josh Gerstein:

Vacuuming up all that data the National Security Agency collects in its call-tracking database, the panel says, hasn’t actually done much to protect the country from terrorism.

And so the panel’s report raises a pointed question: 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?

That’s a darn good question.

14 Responses to “All Three Branches of Gov’t Agree: NSA’s Bulk Metadata Collection Doesn’t Thwart Terrorism”

  1. […] All Three Branches of Gov’t Agree: NSA’s Bulk Metadata Collection Doesn’t Thwart T… ( […]

  2. Program and what can bring us is not small, but that there are failures and minor issues but also quite effective.

  3. […] All Three Branches of Gov’t Agree: NSA’s Bulk Metadata Collection Doesn’t Thwart Terrorism #WakeUp… […]

  4. I care not if 3 branches of govt agree on anything. It's what the people are telling you that matters. And they are telling congress to de-fund and abolish the NSA.

  5. This war on terror is a total scam. And the fact that the NSA has gotten away with what they have for such a long time proves that our so-called "elected officials" are pretty much clueless and powerless to do anything to control our current government. We always wonder why the German people didn't do more to prevent Hitler's rise to power. Never mind! We'll discuss it some other time… football's on tonight!!

  6. i keep reading that we need to cut spending. ok, cut our bloated defense department, NSA, TSA, DHS . . .

  7. But we won't, of course, because all this silly police state crap creates "jobs" in everyone's congressional district.

  8. It isn't as if any rational person still believes the USA is a free country. Think about it. No-warrant wire taps, indefinite detention of citizens without charges, approval of rendition of prisoners and torture, stop and frisk without probable cause, search and seizure without a warrant, no-knock entry, confiscation and destruction of cameras that might have been used to film police acting illegally, police brutality, police shootings that go without investigation, managed news, and the civil-rights destroying "Patriot" Act.

    Acts of police behaving illegally, with shootings, Tasers, and unwarranted violence now appear almost daily. Rarely are these offenses punished. Most often "an investigation" is claimed, but soon forgotten.

    ??In addition, the USA, with 5% of the world population, has 25% of all of the prisoners in the world. That means the USA has the most people in prison of any nation in history. Even by percentage of residents incarcerated, not just sheer numbers. USA is # 1.

    ??Does any of that sound like a free country?

    As Dwight D. Eisenhower said about communism, "It's like slicing sausage. First they out off a small slice. That isn't worth fighting over. Then they take another small slice that isn't worth fighting over. Then another and another. Finally, all you have left is the string and that isn't worth fighting over, either.

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  11. […] of individual liberty and the right to privacy. Joining the task force’s stance of disapproval, a judge just ruled that the NSA’s bulk data collection programs are likely unconstitutional (the dubious phrasing […]

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