“…we have not identified a single instance…” Ineffectual Phone Surveillance

Tim Cushing has a great piece, Privacy Board Says NSA Doesn’t Know How Effective Its Collection Programs Are, Doesn’t Much Care Either at TechDirt on the latest report of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) on government surveillance in the United States.\

As a result of his post, I went searching for the Board’s earlier report on vacuuming up phone records. In part that earlier report reads:

The threat of terrorism faced today by the United States is real. The Section 215 telephone records program was intended as one tool to combat this threat—a tool that would help investigators piece together the networks of terrorist groups and the patterns of their communications with a speed and comprehensiveness not otherwise available. However, we conclude that the Section 215 program has shown minimal value in safeguarding the nation from terrorism. Based on the information provided to the Board, including classified briefings and documentation, we have not identified a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation. Moreover, we are aware of no instance in which the program directly contributed to the discovery of a previously unknown terrorist plot or the disruption of a terrorist attack. And we believe that in only one instance over the past seven years has the program arguably contributed to the identification of an unknown terrorism suspect. Even in that case, the suspect was not involved in planning a terrorist attack and there is reason to believe that the FBI may have discovered him without the contribution of the NSA’s program.

The Board’s review suggests that where the telephone records collected by the NSA under its Section 215 program have provided value, they have done so primarily in two ways: by offering additional leads regarding the contacts of terrorism suspects already
known to investigators, and by demonstrating that foreign terrorist plots do not have a U.S. nexus. The former can help investigators confirm suspicions about the target of an inquiry or about persons in contact with that target. The latter can help the intelligence community focus its limited investigatory resources by avoiding false leads and channeling efforts where they are needed most. But with respect to the former, our review suggests that the Section 215 program offers little unique value but largely duplicates the FBI’s own information gathering efforts. And with respect to the latter, while the value of proper resource allocation in time-sensitive situations is not to be discounted, we question whether the American public should accept the government’s routine collection of all of its telephone records because it helps in cases where there is no threat to the United States. (emphasis added)

What amazes me is that Tim’s review of the current report reflects that the vacuuming of phone records continues and there has been no effort to develop metrics to test the effectiveness of surveillance programs.

Recommendation 10: Develop a Methodology to Assess the Value of Counterterrorism Programs

Status: Not implemented

I wonder why the “…we have not identified a single instance…” line doesn’t come up in every presidential news conference, every interview with candidates for the House or the Senate, interviews with presidential hopefuls? It should come up repeatedly until the program is terminated by the executive branch or Congress defunds the NSA.

The president and others may be testy because they want to spin some other tale for public consumption but here we have a bi-partisan board that has seen the classified evidence and has reported to the public that the mass collection of phone records is ineffective. (full stop) The effectiveness of mass phone surveillance is no long up for debate. The facts are in.

The question is what will the public do with those facts? Not vote for anyone who refuses to defund the NSA or terminate the phone surveillance program?

That’s a start but just to emphasize the point, call the Whitehouse and your representative and both senators daily to request the ending of the bulk phone records surveillance program. That will also illustrate how the NSA program captures constituents communicating with their elected representatives.

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