◓ [Morning Reads] Questioning the NSA’s bulk collection programs’ efficiency for counter-terrorism

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My NY-Cambridge commute this morning has me read two reports questioning the NSA’s PRISM and phone-metadata-bulk-collection program’s efficiency for counter-terrorism efforts, thanks to Lorenzo’s great piece in Mashable

(1) A New America Study lead by Peter Bergen (32pages PDF doc here, one page Web overview there), the National Security analyst who produced the first TV interview with Osama bin Laden in 1997 and the director of the National Security program at New America Foundation. It concludes:

“Our review of the government’s claims about the role that NSA ‘bulk’ surveillance of phone and email communications records has had in keeping the United States safe from terrorism shows that these claims are overblown and even misleading,” (…)

“Traditional investigative methods, such as the use of informants, tips from local communities, and targeted intelligence operations, provided the initial impetus for investigations in the majority of cases, while the contribution of NSA’s bulk surveillance programs to these cases was minimal,”

(2) A report by Marshall Erwin, a counter-terrorism expert having worked for the Intelligence Community (bio here), based at the Hoover Institution as a Fellow (the Hoover Institution is viewed as a conservative and national-security oriented place and is packed with people who served in Government and Agencies working on these issues – I was looking forward to their take on this question). Erwin focused on section 215 of the Patriot Act and places his study in the context of US Federal Judges disputing the legality of these programs – a question that could ultimately be resolved by the US Supreme Court (or not, we’ll see).

He looks deeper into the two examples often cited by the Intelligence Community to demonstrate the efficiency of the collection programs:

My conclusion is simple: neither of these cases demonstrates that bulk phone records collection is effective. Those records did not make a significant contribution to success against the 2009 plot because at the point at which the NSA searched the bulk records database, the FBI already had sufficient information to disrupt the plot. It is also unlikely that bulk collection would have helped disrupt the 9/11 attacks, given critical barriers to information sharing and as demonstrated by the wealth of information already available to the intelligence community about al-Mihdhar.

His report in PDF here, his post for Just Security presenting the study there.  

Serious National Security analysis are fundamental to assess the costs/benefits of NSA’s invasive programs. Simply put: many feel weirded out about the NSA violations but wonder if listening to everyone isn’t necessary, or ‘worth it’, to protect us from terrorism. These two analysis say: no, not worth it, not efficient. In the long run, it can even prove counter-productive: “If we want to ensure the long-term viability of counterterrorism efforts and our continued success against al-Qaeda, we must increasingly prune away those programs and activities that have not helped keep us safe”, Erwin writes.

This is not a US-focused message: it should be heard by all European policymakers trying to figure out what amount of surveillance to tolerate (from US agencies & others) in order to make us all safer.

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