The mass surveillance program that collected millions of phone records and internet user information has only stopped one case of terrorist activity. Only weeks after Edward Snowden initially leaked documents illustrating the National Security Agency’s massive dragnet program, NSA Director Keith Alexander said that the program had “thwarted dozens of attacks.”
Alexander said that the NSA thwarted 54 planned attacks against the United States. In October during a congressional hearing, however, he admitted to the claim’s erroneousness. Only 13 of the 54 cases were plans involving the U.S. and only “one or two” of those cases were implicated by the NSA.
A study by the New America Foundation (NAF) analyzed 225 terrorism cases that occurred within the country since 9/11 and found that the NSA’s program “has had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism.” The NSA was responsible for only 7.5 of the government counterterrorism investigations. The only case of terrorist activity involved a San Diego-based cabdriver, Basaaly Moalin, and the incident was not even related to any impending attack.
The NSA has touted the Moalin case as one of great success. However, the Moalin case sounds quite insignificant given the perceived gravity of importance that Alexander placed on NSA mass surveillance. Moalin was arrested and convicted for sending $8,500 to al-Shabab, a Somalian terrorist organization.
In 2003, Moalin was initially put on the government’s radar by way of an informant’s tip, but the case was eventually closed because of lacking evidence to link him to any terrorist organizations. Four years later, the NSA obtained a phone number possibly, but indirectly, linked to al-Shabab. Fast forward through several years of surveillance, government agents finally made an arrest in 2010. This case that the NSA heralds as “proof” that its program works actually exemplifies its inefficacy.
“The notion that this case could be used to justify a mass collection of data is mind-boggling,” said Joshua Dratel, Moalin’s attorney.
The NAF reported that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court issued 48 traditional surveillance warrants to gather evidence through intercepted phone calls and e-mails. Over half were resulted from traditional investigative measures, the most common in the form of tip to authorities. Other instances involved informant tips or suspicious activity reported to the FBI.
The phone database was created after 9/11 to bolster speedy identification of and reaction to possible terrorists attacks within the country. But the database has proven itself otherwise. The NAF found that the FBI waited two months to investigate Moalin after obtaining his phone number from the NSA.