Two United States senators are disputing claims made by the National Security Agency that secret surveillance programs exposed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden disrupted “dozens of potential terrorist plots.”
On Tuesday, before the House Permanent Committee on Intelligence, NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander stated:
…[T]hese programs are immensely valuable for protecting our nation and securing the security of our allies. In recent years 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. FAA 702 contributed in over 90 percent of these cases. At least 10 of these events included homeland-based threats. In the vast majority, business records, FISA reporting, contributed as well.
Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon and Senator Mark Udall of Colorado put out a statement yesterday that indicated the “Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Section 702 collection program (which allows collection of phone or internet communications, and involves the PRISM computer system) and the bulk phone records collection program operating under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT ACT are being conflated in a way that exaggerates the value and usefulness of the bulk phone records collection program.”
The senators did not dispute that some information had been obtained under section 702 and used to disrupt plots, but they asserted the “bulk pohne records collection program under section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act played little or no role in most of these disruptions.”
They further declared:
…[W]e have yet to see any evidence that the bulk phone records collection program has provided any otherwise unobtainable intelligence. It may be more convenient for the NSA to collect this data in bulk, rather than directing specific queries to the various phone companies, but in our judgment convenience alone does not justify the collection of the personal information of huge numbers of ordinary Americans if the same or more information can be obtained using less intrusive methods…
The senators maintained that it would be easy to make hundreds of requests of the FISA court each year, especially since the “law already allows the government to issue emergency authorizations to get these records quickly in urgent circumstances.”
Sen. Rand Paul on CNN’s “Situation Room” after the committee hearing had this exchange with anchor Jim Acosta:
MR. ACOSTA: And Senator Paul, General Alexander, the other officials at this hearing, they said that the surveillance program stopped an attack on the New York subway system, on the New York Stock Exchange and others. Do you buy what the general and the other officials were saying?
SENATOR RAND PAUL: Well, frankly they told us four months ago they weren’t collecting any data on American citizens, which was an outright lie. So I think they’re at a bit of a credibility gap at this point. The other question I have and I’ve listened to them both in public and in private hearings – I haven’t heard of a single case that couldn’t have been captured or investigated with a traditional judicial warrant and looking at the phone calls of a suspect.
To my knowledge — and I’m a bit at a disadvantage because they have all the secret knowledge and I don’t have it — but to my knowledge, none of the people captured or prevented were traced from random numbers. They were traced from a suspect. So you have a suspect who makes phone calls. I’m all for looking at a suspect’s phone calls with a judge’s warrant and then the next person, you look at their phone calls.
My understanding is they like looking at all Americans’ phone records because they think it’s easier and faster. That’s what I heard from them. Easier and faster, but not that they couldn’t have done this with a regular, traditional judicial warrant.
As CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen outlined, a “survey of court documents and media accounts of all the jihadist terrorist plots in the United States since 9/11″ suggest that “traditional law enforcement methods have overwhelmingly played the most significant role in foiling terrorist attacks.”
Forty-two plots had been “mounted” since 2001 by “homegrown jihadists.” Nine of those plots involved no involvement by federal agents or the government. Twenty-nine of the remaining 33 plots were “uncovered by traditional law enforcement methods, such as the use of informants, reliance on community tips about suspicious activity and other standard policing practices.”
Bergen concluded, “This suggests that the NSA surveillance programs are wide-ranging fishing expeditions with little to show for them.”
It cannot be overstated how critical it is that two senators are testing these claims by the NSA and other government agencies. Deliberately crafted and misleading talking points about how the programs are essential to defend the United States is what officials have to rely upon when defending programs that violate millions of Americans’ civil liberties. If the claims are not tested, then it becomes conventional wisdom that the programs are necessary to keep the terrorists from attacking.
On one level, this makes commentators like TIME’s Joe Klein, who are wholly subservient believers of the national security state, seem even more foolish:
…Yes, I expect that some of my phone and e-mail traffic has been picked up in the data trawling. I travel fairly frequently to places like Iran, Afghanistan, Egypt, the West Bank and the rest of the region; part of my job is to talk to partisans on all sides — and also to talk to sources in the U.S. military and intelligence communities. I have no problem with the government knowing that I’m doing my job…
That willful acceptance that enables authoritarian policies or programs is revealed to be purely ignorant when one realizes upon deconstruction that there is little to these claims that the surveillance programs were necessary to stopping terror plots.
Even more importantly, this is what government does whenever there are leaks or disclosures on national security policies. They make claims about how the now-public information will risk national security, help America’s adversaries or enemies and possibly even benefit a foreign nation.
This was the canard when WikiLeaks released US government documents provided to the organization by Pfc. Bradley Manning. It is the canard they reflexively put forward any time the veil of secrecy they struggle to maintain is punctured.
Here’s part of the interview that The Guardian‘s Glenn Greenwald had with CNN’s Anderson Cooper on June 12, the same day that Rep. Peter King called for Greenwald to be prosecuted for writing stories containing Snowden’s disclosures on the NSA:
COOPER: …King also says that you should be prosecuted because of what you’ve already published saying it puts American lives at risk. Do you believe that at all? Because, you know, I was going back and researching, when the WikiLeaks released huge amounts of information, “The Guardian” and the “Times” and elsewhere, a lot of people said, you know, they had blood on their hands. Julian Assange should have blood on his hand.
But then U.S. officials privately admitted in — to people in Congress and even publicly that even though the revelations were embarrassing, were a problem, that they couldn’t name who’d really lost their lives because of it. So when now when people are saying you had put American lives at risk, do you believe that at all?
GREENWALD: No, and, Anderson, that point you just made I — in my opinion is really the crucial point for anybody listening to take away. Every single time the American government has things that they’ve done in secret, exposed or revealed, to the world and they’re embarrassed by it, the tactic that they use is to try and scare people into believing that they have to overlook what they have done.
They have to trust American officials to exercise power in the dark, lest they be attacked. That their security and safety depend upon pacing this value in political officials. And I really think it’s the supreme obligation of every journalist and every citizen when they hear an American official say this story about us jeopardizes national security to demand specifics, to ask what exactly it is that has jeopardized national security because if you look at the stories that we reported we were very careful to never disclose anything that could even conceivably harm national security.
But, was the number given by Alexander during the hearing tested or questioned immediately by the US press after he uttered it during the hearing?
The USA Today, The Washington Post, Reuters, Bloomberg, Los Angeles Times, The Hill, and NBC News all published stories that did little to nothing to question claims made. And MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell had former defense secretary William Cohen on her program and, when she cited the claim about 50 plots, she did not ask him a single question about it. The focus of the interview, instead, was “insider threats” in national security agencies.
No matter how often national security agencies make claims about terrorism that are deliberately misleading or plainly fabricated, there are always an array of staff writers or reporters at US media organizations to make them into headlines, which is why Wyden and Udall’s statement is important. They are in a position of authority to know and they, like others in their position, have a duty to inform the public when agencies in government are spreading information about the value of programs that basically amounts to propaganda.