A public policy group says a review of U.S. terrorist arrests shows the government’s collection of bulk phone records does little to prevent terrorism, adding fuel to a debate over whether the spy program should be ended.
The nonprofit New America Foundation, based in Washington, analyzed cases involving 225 people recruited by al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups and charged in the U.S. since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The majority of cases started with traditional techniques, such as use of “informants, tips from local communities, and targeted intelligence operations,” according to a report today from the group, which has been critical of the NSA spy programs.
“Our investigation found that bulk collection 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,” Peter Bergen, director of the foundation’s national security program, said in a statement.
The National Security Agency’s collection and use of bulk phone records, such as numbers dialed and call durations, is one of several surveillance programs exposed by former government contractor Edward Snowden. The disclosures have prompted calls both domestically and overseas for the U.S. to discontinue or alter the programs.
President Barack Obama plans on Jan. 17 to announce his decisions on whether to alter spy programs, which could include requiring Verizon Communications Inc., AT&T Inc. and other phone companies to retain phone records for the government.
New America Foundation receives funding from both public and private sources, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the U.S. Department of State, according to the group’s website. The foundation researches and analyzes a range of topics, including the inner workings of al-Qaeda, global economics and the U.S. education system. The Open Technology Institute, its technology arm, is in a coalition of privacy groups opposed to NSA’s data collection programs.
NSA Director Keith Alexander and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper had defended the use of bulk records as being essential to disrupting dozens of domestic and international terrorist plots when it was first exposed in June by Snowden. They since have backed off those claims.
Alexander told the Senate Judiciary Committee Oct. 2 that the program has helped stop only one or two terrorist plots inside the U.S. since it was begun in 2006. Clapper offered a new rationale for the program during the hearing, saying it can be used to provide “peace of mind” that there aren’t terrorist plots in the works.
A White House advisory panel appointed by Obama concluded in a Dec. 18 report the phone records program “was not essential to preventing attacks” and information needed to disrupt terrorist plots “could readily have been obtained in a timely manner using conventional” court orders.
The five members of the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology are scheduled to testify tomorrow before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The review group recommended putting limits on the NSA, including prohibiting the agency from collecting and storing billions of phone records. Instead, the data should be held by Verizon, AT&T and other carriers or a third party and only accessed by the NSA with a court warrant, the panel said.
Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has introduced legislation in line with the group’s recommendation.
The bulk metadata program is “a valuable tool” and “one of many programs the intelligence community uses to identify, track, and disrupt the activities of our adversaries, including terrorists,” Michael Birmingham, spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said in an e-mail.
“Neither this nor any other singular intelligence program can, by itself, ensure our national security,” he said. “The intelligence community has said that it would support modifications to the program that maintain the capability it provides, strengthens oversight and addresses concerns about civil liberties and privacy.”
Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, has vowed to kill legislation that would end the program. Carriers may have to spend $60 million a year to retain the phone records and face burdensome litigation, Feinstein said in a Jan. 9 interview.
“This is to prevent an attack,” Feinstein said of the bulk phone records program. “You’ve got to move quickly when you have someone that is a known foreign terrorist calling into this country.”
Requiring the phone companies keep the records “presents a huge civil situation,” she said. “Would every detective or every attorney want to get the records?”
NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Kevin Bankston, policy director for the New American Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, has been part of a coalition of privacy advocates calling for the end of the collection of bulk phone records.
The foundation describes its work as “responsible to the changing conditions and problems of our 21st Century information-age economy,” according to the website. The foundation’s board chairman is Google Inc. Chairman Eric Schmidt, an Obama supporter.