The Spectacle Blog

The NSA and Stopping Terrorist Attacks

By on 6.10.13 | 1:38PM

Former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen is defending the NSA's counterterrorism measures in today's Washington Post:

Why does the NSA need to collect all that data? One former national security official explained it to me this way: If you want to connect the dots and stop the next attack, you need to have a “field of dots.” That is what the NSA is collecting. But it doesn’t dip into that field unless it comes up with a new “dot” — for example, a new terrorist phone number found on a cellphone captured in a raid. It will then plug that new “dot” into the “field of dots” to find out which dots are connected to the new number. If you are not communicating with that terrorist, your dot is not touched. But the NSA needs to have the entire field of dots so it can unravel the network connected to that terrorist.

In the case of the PRISM program, the NSA is targeting foreign nationals, not U.S. citizens, and not even individuals in the United States. And all of this collection is being done with a warrant, issued by a federal judge, under authorities approved by Congress.

We've mentioned several times on this blog how the supposed oversight by the FISA court is a darkly humorous joke—judges have rejected only 11 of more than 32,000 surveillance requests. And if the NSA considers itself to be planting a "field of dots," then it's a pretty sprawling field. The warrant recently approved by FISC sought all of Verizon's customer data over a three-month period.

Perhaps there's some validity to this connect-the-dots strategy, but right now we don't have the evidence to back that up. The real question of effectiveness for the NSA is whether all this data mining—both from the expansive FISA orders and the PRISM program—has prevented a terrorist attack.

You'll recall that Rep. Mike Rogers claimed last week that the agency's intelligence had done just that. Anonymous sources later confirmed that Rogers was referring to the arrest of Najibullah Zazi, who pleaded guilty to trying to set off bombs in the New York City subway system. Per the New York Times:

To defenders of the N.S.A., the Zazi case underscores how the agency’s Internet surveillance system, called Prism, which was set up over the past decade to collect data from online providers of e-mail and chat services, has yielded concrete results.

“We were able to glean critical information,” said a senior intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It was through an e-mail correspondence that we had access to only through Prism.”

Over the weekend that all fell apart, thanks to Ben Smith who checked the legal papers:

The details of terror investigations are not always laid out this clearly in public; but they appear to belie the notion, advanced by anonymous government officials Friday, that sweeping access to millions of email accounts played an important roil in foiling the subway attack. Instead, this is the sort investigation made possible by ordinary warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act; authorities appear simply to have been monitoring the Pakistani email account that had been linked to terrorists earlier that year.

Security state defenders always speak in reverent tones about how intrusive programs like PRISM are keeping us safe. If so, then it's time for the government to demonstrate that. Show us a foiled terrorist attack whose prevention hinged on extensive data mining or PRISM, rather than old-fashioned police work. Give us the evidence that these massive dragnets are not only integral to stopping terrorism, and that a smaller scope would be insufficient. The onus is on the government here, and until they show us something, the NSA's defenders have nothing but empty rhetoric and primitive faith in the beneficence of the bureaucracy.

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