None of which is to say that the program could never prove useful. The privacy board found that bulk collection has some limited benefits: It can help investigators find leads on existing suspects (almost always by corroborating information they already have), and it can help confirm that a foreign terrorist plot does not have a U.S. connection, thus helping conserve law-enforcement resources. The data could also be useful in investigating an attack after the fact. And there could be benefits that the government hasn’t yet revealed.
But all this comes with clear drawbacks. The program is objectively intrusive, unpopular with the public and legally dubious. The most profound cost, of course, is as abstract as the program’s supposed benefits: The simple act of collecting and storing so much personal information on citizens — in secret, without probable cause — erodes the very notion of American liberty.
For all that, if the program were essential for stopping terrorist attacks and saving American lives, it might still be worthwhile.
Yet almost everyone who has looked into the program in detail has concluded that it isn’t an essential tool in preventing terrorist attacks and that it has demonstrated little or nothing of unique investigative value. A review group appointed by the president in August came to roughly the same conclusion as the privacy board on this score. So have two members of the Senate intelligence committee. So did a federal judge. Meanwhile, several attempted terrorist attacks on the U.S. — notably one by Faisal Shahzad, a U.S. citizen who tried to detonate a car bomb in New York’s Times Square — have evaded the program’s dragnet.
After seven years of evidence, in other words, the basic premise used to rationalize this program has never been validated. What’s left to justify its costs?