Mt. Vernon Register-News

Opinion

January 28, 2014

NSA can't justify its phone record collection program

Of the many questions that still surround the National Security Agency’s vast global spying operations, one seems especially pertinent: Do they actually work? That is, have they helped to prevent terrorist attacks against Americans?

In the case of the NSA’s phone-data program — in which the agency vacuums up information about essentially every call made by Americans — it’s getting harder and harder for the government to answer yes. The latest evidence comes from a report last week by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, an independent federal agency established on the recommendation of the Sept. 11 Commission to balance the right to liberty against the need to prevent terrorism.

The board — which had access to classified information — offered this blunt assessment:

“We have not identified a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the telephone records program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation,” the report says. “Moreover, we are aware of no instance in which the program directly contributed to the discovery of a previously unknown terrorist plot or the disruption of a terrorist attack.”

In evaluating the NSA’s stunning surveillance capabilities, revealed by former contractor Edward Snowden beginning last June, the question always should be whether the benefits are worth the costs. By now it’s obvious that the oversight of this phone program was insufficient. The benefit of having the records in the first place, however, was always couched in more practical terms by the NSA and its supporters in Congress: It was helping thwart terrorist attacks.

The NSA has asserted that bulk data collection has played some role in disrupting 54 “terrorist events.” Of those, only 12 involved the phone-data program in some capacity. The privacy board examined each in detail. In the only case where the program may have helped the government identify a terrorism suspect — a San Diego cab driver named Basaaly Moalin, who was sending money to the Somalian terrorist group al-Shabaab — there was no threat of an attack on the United States and no reason to conclude that a bulk data-collection program was necessary to determine the connection.

Text Only
Opinion
  • Heartburn Tens of millions of Americans have been affected by the theft of their personal information in the digital age. In a recent major data breach at Target stores, numbers and names were taken from about 40 million customers, and many millions more suffe

    April 15, 2014

  • Hitting home I received an article today with a suggestion to use it in a column. This one really hit home to me because it was about the outrageous price increases in diabetic testing devices and supplies. I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes several years ago.

    April 15, 2014

  • The cost of care This was a breakthrough week for health-care transparency. For the first time, the Obama administration released doctor-specific information about Medicare payments, starting with 2012 data on $64 billion worth of billings. Journalists immediately se

    April 15, 2014

  • Obama could stand to be a little more like LBJ On Thursday, President Barack Obama joined other dignitaries at a civil rights summit to commemorate the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson's signature accomplishment as president -- passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. And in a nod to

    April 12, 2014

  • Human performers, not animals Editor: The circus is coming to town with their circus animal slaves. Like other circuses who torture animals, the circus is very close to being shut down for good. Everything takes baby steps. Why should I waste my time with words when anyone can vi

    April 12, 2014

  • HYPE, HYPE, HOORAY! How long do you think you'd continue to buy this newspaper if every single story on every single page for the last three weeks was about a missing airplane? Or a hurricane? Or a baby down a well? Or any other single topic? No sports, no weddings, no

    April 12, 2014

  • Vote for optimism The widespread conservative media freak-out over Jeb Bush's potential presidential candidacy has mostly centered on his expressing empathy for those who come illegally to the United States seeking a better life for their families. But something else

    April 11, 2014

  • The meaning of marriage 'Charges of bigotry ... are the ultimate secular insult," Caroline Farrow tells me. "The cry of 'bigot' is bandied around so much these days," she observes, "that it has begun to lose some of its potency." Perhaps that's why people are bullied out of

    April 11, 2014

  • Sidewalks waste of money Editor: First of all, let me state that I have no idea where the money has come from to replace old sidewalks or to put in new ones. That is a non-issue. The money came from somewhere and was a waste. I have talked with no one who believes the sidewa

    April 11, 2014

  • A risk worth taking If electronic cigarettes, known as e-cigarettes, live up to their potential, millions of nicotine addicts in the United States will use them. To some public health advocates, that sounds terrible. People should kick nicotine rather than cultivate the

    April 11, 2014

Twitter Updates
Facebook
Stocks