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NSA snooping fails to prevent terrorist attacks, watchdog group says

Published time: January 13, 2014 14:39
Edited time: January 14, 2014 09:19
Reuters / Aly Song

Reuters / Aly Song

Out of 225 terrorism cases on the territory of the United States since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the NSA’s PRISM program did little to protect the nation from terrorism, according to a new study.

The bulk collection of metadata phone records by the National Security Agency “has had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism,” according to a study by the New America Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit group.

Analysis revealed that much of the evidence it did find “could readily have been obtained in a timely manner using conventional [court] orders.”

The study, to be released on Monday, echoes that of a White House-appointed study concluded last month that the NSA program “was not essential to preventing attacks.”

President Obama on Friday will deliver his recommendations on the program, which has turned into a political lightning rod.

John McCain, the Republican senator, has called for a congressional inquiry into America’s “broken” National Security Agency.

“There has been overreach, it seems to me,” he said. “Sometimes these agencies have done things just because they can. I think we need a select committee in Congress to go over this whole scenario, because it does overlap many committees.”

The NSA counterterrorism program, which amasses the call details – number called, time and length of the communications - of nearly every American, has come under harsh public and political scrutiny since former NSA contractor, Edward Snowden, blew the whistle on the program last summer.

The backlash from the NSA revelations has been international in scale, with even close political allies of the United States enraged that their private communications were being scooped up in the vast intelligence net.

Intelligence officials, meanwhile, have argued on behalf of the program, saying it helps to unearth terrorist plots, giving what the Director of National Intelligence, James R. Clapper, called the “peace of mind metric.”

Michael Morell, a former acting CIA director and a member of the panel, said the program “needs to be successful only once to be invaluable.” Incidentally, that was the exact number of cases the NSA program successfully intercepted.

Analysts at the New America Foundation said the massive collection of American citizens’ telephone metadata resulted in a single lead when it was discovered that Basaaly Moalin, a San Diego cabdriver who in 2007 and 2008 provided $8,500 to al-Shabaab, Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia.

The incident involved no risk of attack against the United States.

Moreover, according to the report, the FBI waited two full months to begin an investigation against Moalin, after being contacted by the NSA.

“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 said.

More than half of the cases were initiated as a result of traditional investigative methods, such as a family member providing a tip to the authorities. Other tools included the use of informants, community member or a suspicious-activity report.