On June 5, 2013, the Guardian broke the first story in what would become a flood of revelations regarding the extent and nature of the NSA’s surveillance programs. Facing an uproar over the threat such programs posed to privacy, the Obama administration scrambled to defend them as legal and essential to U.S. national security and counterterrorism. Two weeks after the first leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden were published, President Obama defended the NSA surveillance programs during a visit to Berlin, saying: “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.” Gen. Keith Alexander, the director of the NSA, testified before 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.” Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said on the House floor in July that “54 times [the NSA programs] stopped and thwarted terrorist attacks both here and in Europe – saving real lives.”
However, our review of the government’s claims about the role that NSA “bulk” surveillance of phone and email communications records has had in keeping the United States safe from terrorism shows that these claims are overblown and even misleading. An in-depth analysis of 225 individuals recruited by al-Qaeda or a like-minded group or inspired by al-Qaeda’s ideology, and charged in the United States with an act of terrorism since 9/11, demonstrates 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. Indeed, the controversial bulk collection of American telephone metadata, which includes the telephone numbers that originate and receive calls, as well as the time and date of those calls but not their content, under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, appears to have played an identifiable role in initiating, at most, 1.8 percent of these cases. NSA programs involving 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.
Regular FISA warrants not issued in connection with Section 215 or Section 702, which are the traditional means for investigating foreign persons, were used in at least 48 (21 percent) of the cases we looked at, although it’s unclear whether these warrants played an initiating role or were used at a later point in the investigation. (Click on the link to go to a database of all 225 individuals, complete with additional details about them and the government’s investigations of these cases: http://natsec.newamerica.net/nsa/analysis).
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. Furthermore, our examination of the role of the database of U.S. citizens’ telephone metadata in the single plot the government uses to justify the importance of the program – that of Basaaly Moalin, a San Diego cabdriver who in 2007 and 2008 provided $8,500 to al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia – calls into question the necessity of the Section 215 bulk collection program. According to the government, the database of American phone metadata allows intelligence authorities to quickly circumvent the traditional burden of proof associated with criminal warrants, thus allowing them to “connect the dots” faster and prevent future 9/11-scale attacks. Yet in the Moalin case, 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. Although it’s unclear why there was a delay between the NSA tip and the FBI wiretapping, court documents show there was a two-month period in which the FBI was not monitoring Moalin’s calls, despite official statements that the bureau had Moalin’s phone number and had identified him. , This undercuts the government’s theory that the database of Americans’ telephone metadata is necessary to expedite the investigative process, since it clearly didn’t expedite the process in the single case the government uses to extol its virtues.
Additionally, a careful review of three of the key terrorism cases the government has cited to defend NSA bulk surveillance programs reveals that government officials have exaggerated the role of the NSA in the cases against David Coleman Headley and Najibullah Zazi, and the significance of the threat posed by a notional plot to bomb the New York Stock Exchange.
In 28 percent of the cases we reviewed, court records and public reporting do not identify which specific methods initiated the investigation. These cases, involving 62 individuals, may have been initiated by an undercover informant, an undercover officer, a family member tip, other traditional law enforcement methods, CIA- or FBI-generated intelligence, NSA surveillance of some kind, or any number of other methods. In 23 of these 62 cases (37 percent), an informant was used. However, we were unable to determine whether the informant initiated the investigation or was used after the investigation was initiated as a result of the use of some other investigative means. Some of these cases may also be too recent to have developed a public record large enough to identify which investigative tools were used.
We have also identified three additional plots that the government has not publicly claimed as NSA successes, but in which court records and public reporting suggest the NSA had a role. However, it is not clear whether any of those three cases involved bulk surveillance programs.
Finally, the overall problem for U.S. 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. This was true for two of the 9/11 hijackers who were known to be in the United States before the attacks on New York and Washington, as well as with the case of Chicago resident David Coleman Headley, who helped plan the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, and it is the unfortunate pattern we have also seen in several other significant terrorism cases.