Report says NSA bulk surveillance has “no discernible impact” on preventing terrorism

nsa eagle

The New America Foundation (NAF) have written a report in which they say that the bulk surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency (NSA), has “no discernible impact” on preventing terrorist actions.

The report in question is called “Do NSA’s Bulk Surveillance Programs Stop Terrorists?” and also says that the NSA has exaggerated how useful its “bulk surveillance techniques” are.

The report cites the case of Basaly Moalin. The NSA claims that through their methods they were able to quickly catch Moalin, who was a San Diego taxi driver that gave $8,500 to an associate who was connected to al-Qaeda. It turns out the case wasn’t resolved as quickly as the NSA claimed.

“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,” it says in the report. “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.”

The reports main suggestion for how counter-terrorism can be handled in the United States is that more energy and resources need to be given to local authorities.

“The overall problem 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,” the report states.

[via Wired, image via ElectronicFrontierFoundation’s flickr]

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  • JMJ

    [@Darcy] It appears that your and my opinions about this article, in particular, and the NSA’s reported activities upon which it is based, in general, are more convergent than divergent: This article asserts facts and knowledge not in evidence; and, many of the NSA’s actions appear to be un-Constitutional and may be ineffectual. Do you agree with this summation?

    Of course, in a nation governed by the rule of law, I and many others agree with your statement, “..if the laws and the intent behind those laws were enforced, I would have no objection to the NSA’s activities.” Further, we agree that, once Constitutional limits on the actions of the NSA are demarcated and after means to enforce those limits are in place, then let the NSA get on with its work of “defending” the United States from “terrorists”.

    We part ways on other points, however. For example, I believe that, on at least five occasions, the United States Government deliberately acted, or did not act, in the manner necessary to protect its citizens from war and the consequences of war.

    1. Despite the obvious risks and specific German warnings published in the New York Times of the day, the U.S. Government allowed the arms-carrying passenger ship Lusitania to sail from NY to England through a war zone patrolled by German submarines, with the intent to incite the American public to enter World War I on the side of the Allies after the Lusitania was predictably attacked and sunk.

    2. The U.S. Government, with the intent to incite the American public to enter World War II on the side of the Allies, withdrew its main naval assets — three aircraft carriers– away from Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and allowed the remaining assets –mainly obsolete battleships– to be attacked by the Imperial Japanese Navy on December 7, 1941. Reports of radar contact with unknown, possibly hostile vessels was transmitted from Hawaii to Washington by PUBLIC POST OFFICE rather than the more efficient and speedy military channels. [ASIDE: I had a maternal uncle-by-marriage who was a radioman at Pearl Harbor from 1940 until 1943 who told me that such treatment of military intelligence was absolutely NOT standard procedure.]

    3. The agreements at the Yalta Conference between Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin were intentionally designed to create a postwar environment wherein a constant “threat” to American national security would incite the American populace into accepting an exorbitantly expensive military “state of readiness” that would produce trillions of dollars of revenue for the corporate elites and real [sic] government of America.

    4. The United States government ignored the legitimate demands of the Iranian people for a more democratic society and continued to support and to keep in power its puppet ruler, the Shah Pahlavi. When the young people (as is usual throughout history and worldwide) of Iran became more strident and even violent in their demands, the U.S. Government reacted by, among many other things, fomenting discord between Iran and a neighbor, Iraq, which the U.S. armed, helped train and encouraged to go to war. [Please note: For space and time considerations, I have omitted including the legitimate Vietnamese demand for freedom and democracy as ignored and fought against by the U.S. after WWII.]

    After eight years of war and countless tens-of-thousands of deaths between Brother Nations, the quasi-puppet State, Iraq, emerged the putative victor with the fourth largest army in the world. It flexed its U.S.-provided military power in the region until it became an imminent threat, not only to its neighbors but to the entire world (an their addiction to oil.) After getting the go-ahead from the U.S. Government, delivered by Secretary of State Albright days before, Iraq was allowed [sic] to invade its tiny neighbor, Kuwait. The American people were incited to cheer and marvel at the real-life video-game-like war we admiringly called “Desert Storm”. The one hundred-thousand+ murders committed in our name were portrayed as merely “collateral damage”

    5. Gulf War II – Continued from Number 4, above.

    In the name of the American People, the Government of the United States has perpetrated on those very People — and the entire World– some of the worst crimes in history. I still love my Country and continue to believe that, at its best, it is the best model for how nations should be governed. I see the NSA scandal as just one slipping of the curtain that has always obscured where and how true power is wielded when the People are lulled into complacency or incited to rash action by the real Powers Behind the Ballot Box. Democracy is a bitch.

  • [@JMJ] The report is nothing new though. A well known weakness of information gathering is too much information to process. Documents released well after WWII show that the US government had information about the attack on Pearl Harbor well before it happened. Some conspiracy theorists say that the US let it happen in order to get us into the war, which is obviously nonsense. No nation lets it’s ability to war on a particular front be destroyed (current events not withstanding). There was simply too much information and it got lost in the shuffle. Many other examples of this exist.

    My objections to the NSA activities are not because of what they are doing but because of the fact that they are bypassing legal procedures to do it. Yes, I’m well aware that the law do not reflect electronic media, nobody foresaw the rise of email so laws to protect snail mail do not cover it, for example. Their actions, and the current reported abuses, violate the spirit of the law all the way back to the 4th Amendment. “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

    “There is no better illustration of that crisis than the fact that the president is openly violating our nation’s laws by authorizing the NSA to engage in warrantless surveillance of U.S. citizens.” – John Conyers

    That said, if the laws and the intent behind those laws were enforced, I would have no objection to the NSA’s activities. The fact that they are ineffective at using this to predict terrorist attacks, per recent reports, is more a matter of incorrect data analysis than anything else IMO. Marketing analysts use this type of metadata to make predictions effectively. That’s the science behind targeted advertising. (I have a master’s degree in Data Analysis and worked in advertising for over 10 years so yes, I do know something of what I’m talking about.)

  • Mike S.

    [@JMJ] Thank you for your rationale, thinking response and consideration.

  • JMJ

    As fashionable, and perhaps as justifiable, as all the NSA bashing is, the New America Foundation (NAF) report ( as presented here) is ridiculous.

    Of course, the more information the NSA gathers from whatever sources provides more chances for them to catch any bad guys. The fact that they may not be using the information as well as they could is a separate issue.

    In addition, in assessing the credibility of this so-called report, one has to question just HOW the NAF could possibly know how effective or ineffective the NSA is. I mean, that is the exact problem with the NSA’s operations: They are too secret, too unsupervised, too unmonitored and too opaque. Yet, the NAF wants us to believe that only they somehow have answers to, and knowledge about, the inner workings of the NSA and how it processes all of the information it gathers, both legally and illegally.

    That is pure nonsense. Just because they publish a “report” does not mean that they have some unique understanding or knowledge of what the rest of us definitely don’t know and are prevented from knowing. That is what all the fuss is about, isn’t it?