NSA Snooping Had ‘Minimal’ Impact On Fighting Terrorism

The US National Security Agency’s (NSA) dragnet that drew in masses of ordinary citizens’ communications data only supplied “minimal” assistance in catching terrorists, according to a report from the New America Foundation.

Instead, it appeared traditional investigative methods, such as use of informants and tips from local communities, proved considerably more fruitful, according to the think tank. Such methods initiated 60 percent of the cases the report identified.

“Surveillance 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,” the New America Foundation said.

NSA dragnet role ‘exaggerated’

The group looked at the cases of 225 individuals either recruited by al-Qaeda, or like-minded groups, or who were in some way inspired by al-Qaeda ideology, and who had subsequently been charged in the US with an act of terrorism since 9/11.

“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,” the report read.

NSA programmes involving the surveillance of non-US persons outside of the United States under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act played a role in 4.4 percent of the terrorism cases we examined, and NSA surveillance under an unidentified authority played a role in 1.3 percent of the cases we examined.”

The report looked at the specific case of Basaaly Moalin, a San Diego cabdriver who in 2007 and 2008 provided $8,500 to al-Shabaab, a Somali al-Qaeda affiliate, which US authorities cite as an example of the benefits of the mass metadata gathering.

Despite the US government’s claim it could find people faster using the data, ,the FBI took two months to begin an investigation and wiretap Moalin’s phone after the NSA’s phone database was used to link a number in Somalia to Moalin.

The case did not involve any plot for a future attack either, and the four individuals involved in the made up only 1.8 percent of the 225 cases identified.

In other cases, the US has “exaggerated the role of the NSA”, the report claimed. That included the case of David Coleman Headley, who plotted to attack the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in Copenhagen in 2009 in response to publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed.

Despite US claims the NSA’s intelligence was invaluable in preventing an attack, it appeared British security services played a far more pivotal role, according to the report.

Last week, outgoing NSA deputy director John C Inglis admitted to NPR that at most only one terrorist plot might have been prevented thanks to the mass surveillance, but said the bulk metadata gathering was a necessary “insurance policy”.

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Thomas Brewster

Tom Brewster is TechWeek Europe's Security Correspondent. He has also been named BT Information Security Journalist of the Year in 2012 and 2013.

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  • The dystopian fantasies of yesteryear are now a reality. We’ve allowed the coming of an age where the civil liberties our forefathers fought so hard for are being eroded by the day. Freedom of Press, Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Assembly are mere ghostly images of their original intent. We’ve woken up to an Orwellian Society of Fear where anyone is at the mercy of being labeled a terrorist for standing up for rights we took for granted just over a decade ago. Read about how we’re waging war against ourselves at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2011/09/living-in-society-of-fear-ten-years.html

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