A little over six months ago, the first revelations about the NSA’s spying program began to surface in the world's media after the Guardian published information that had been leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Not long after the news was released, President Obama said at a press conference in Germany: “We know of at least 50 threats that have been averted because of this information not just in the United States, but, in some cases, threats here in Germany. So lives have been saved.”
According to a report released Monday by the New America Foundation about NSA surveillance, this was not true.
The Washington-based nonprofit foundation said that since 9/11 those methods used by the NSA have been largely ineffective and that the the mass collection of records “has had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism.”
The report, named “Do NSA’s Bulk Surveillance Programs Stop Terrorists?” found that other anti-terrorism measures, such as traditional law enforcement and investigative techniques, provided more information and evidence that was far more effective in combating terrorism.
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The in-depth analysis found that of the 225 terrorists that are affiliated with al Qaeda or like-minded groups and have been charged in the U.S. for terrorism-related offenses, only 17 were uncovered by NSA-related techniques, four of which came from the highly controversial section 215 of the Patriot Act, 10 from section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and a further three by unknown means. This compares unfavorably with the 135 convictions that came from traditional investigative techniques such as tip-offs and undercover work.
Furthermore, the report from the New America Foundation is widely in line with a White House-ordered report, Liberty And Security In a Changing World – The President’s Review Group On Intelligence and Communications Technologies, which found last month that the NSA counterterrorism program “was not essential to preventing attacks” and that much of the evidence it did turn up “could readily have been obtained in a timely manner using conventional [court] orders.”
The report also mentions that “the controversial bulk collection of American telephone metadata, which includes the telephone numbers that originate and receive calls, as well as the time and date of those calls but not their content, under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, appears to have played an identifiable role in initiating, at most, 1.8 percent of these cases.”
In 28 percent of cases the report reviewed, public reporting and court records did not identify specific methods that initiated the investigation, so it's not inconceivable that the NSA did have a hand in those. The 62 cases may have been initiated by a family member tip, undercover agent, undercover informant, CIA- or FBI-generated intelligence, NSA surveillance or more traditional law enforcement methods. However, in 23 of the 62 cases an informant was used, says the report, but it is unable to clarify if the informant was brought in before or after the case was initiated.