Study asks: Does the NSA data mining program stop terrorists?

A camera is seen monitoring customers, New York, NY.
A camera is seen monitoring customers, New York, NY.

The NSA took another hit on Monday, as a new report found the agency’s controversial data mining program likely had little effect on the nation's security.

According to a study released Monday by the nonprofit New America Foundation, which analyzed 225 terrorism cases since 9/11, the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of communications records has had “no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism.”

In fact, the study found, the NSA’s program under Section 215 of the Patriot Act has played “an identifiable role in initiating, at most, 1.8% of these cases.” Most of the cases actually began with evidence obtained through traditional investigative methods “such as the use of informants, tips from local communities, and targeted intelligence operations.”

Furthermore, the reports calls out government claims that the program has thwarted over 50 potential terrorist attacks as “overblown and even misleading.” In zero instances has the NSA’s database of telephone metadata expedited “the investigative process,” contrary to what some government officials have said.

“The overall problem for U.S. counterterrorism officials is not that they need vaster amounts of information from the bulk surveillance programs,” the report concludes, “but that they don’t sufficiently understand or widely share the information they already possess that was derived from conventional law enforcement and intelligence techniques.”

“This was true for two of the 9/11 hijackers who were known to be in the United States before the attacks on New York and Washington, as well as with the case of Chicago resident David Coleman Headley, who helped plan the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai,” it says.  “And it is the unfortunate pattern we have also seen in several other significant terrorism cases.”

New America Foundation’s study is the latest in a series of blows to the NSA, which include a federal ruling that the bulk collection of communication records was likely unconstitutional, and a separate White House review that determined the program was “not essential” to preventing terrorist attacks. Last week, President Obama held meetings with intelligence officials, federal legislators, and civil liberties advocates to determine what, if any, changes to government surveillance policies he can support.

Top intelligence officials have maintained the program is necessary to protect the nation from another terrorist attack.