The Spectacle Blog

NSA Phone Data: Maybe One Success, Unknown Abuses

By on 8.2.13 | 11:56AM

This week I wrote that senior intelligence officials broke virtually no new ground at Wednesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee oversight hearing. But Guardian National Security Editor Spencer Ackerman pointed out a very interesting development yesterday on “Democracy NOW!”:

When pressed by Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), NSA Deputy Director John Inglis could only point to one terrorist plot which the PATRIOT Act Section 215 mass telephony metadata collection program may have played an indispensable role in preventing. Little additional security, at a great cost to liberty.

This is out of the 54 examples he and his colleagues have cited to justify the program as well as PRISM Internet surveillance, 17 of which had a “domestic terror nexus.” Inglis and company argue that the programs are designed to work in concert, fulfilling specialized roles, but when push came to shove, the NSA’s chief operating officer could only point to one plausible example of the program’s value. A skeptical Leahy began the hearing by saying that in lieu of such evidence, the program should end.

Another easy-to-overlook point, certainly one worth highlighting, is Senator Ron Wyden’s (D-Ore.) warning on the chamber floor that the NSA’s procedural transgressions while pursuing the Section 215 and PRISM programs are much more serious than Director of National Intelligence James Clapper admitted in a recent letter to him. Clapper said that violations of procedure have all been accidental and benign, dutifully documented and reported to the proper authorities.

Taken together, these revelations mark a new chapter in the story. Not only does the NSA struggle to justify collecting the phone data of every American, it has misused such power to a greater extent than currently acknowledged and understood. Ackerman points out that Wyden has a track record of highlighting abuses and nudging watchdogs in the right direction, despite being hobbled by classification rules. The full motivations -- and possible abuses -- of the NSA remain to be seen.

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