Privacy SOS

NSA’s own records show that highly targeted surveillance — not dragnet snooping — locates terrorism suspects

The national security establishment and its many defenders in the executive branch and congress repeat ad nauseam that we need to maintain the mass surveillance programs authorized under Sections 215 of the USA Patriot Act and 702 of the FISA Amendments Act — or else Terrorists will kill us. The Obama administration, like the one before it, claims that the fight against terrorism requires that the NSA collect and data mine our phone records and private communications on the most massive possible scale. 

Most people who pay attention to security and liberty issues know that claim to be patently false. The Washington Post published a story last night that puts yet another dent in that monstrous, authoritarian lie.

Describing the case of terrorism suspect Hassan Ghul, killed in a CIA drone strike supported by NSA intelligence and targeting information, the Post demolishes the theory that mass surveillance plays any substantial role in the NSA’s top secret counterterrorism operations:

The documents do not explain how the Ghul e-mail was obtained or whether it was intercepted using legal authorities that have emerged as a source of controversy in recent months and enable the NSA to compel technology giants including Microsoft and Google to turn over information about their users. Nor is there a reference to another NSA program facing scrutiny after Snowden’s leaks, its metadata collection of numbers dialed by nearly every person in the United States.

To the contrary, the records indicate that the agency depends heavily on highly targeted network penetrations to gather information that wouldn’t otherwise be trapped in surveillance nets that it has set at key Internet gateways.

In other words, there is no evidence in the NSA’s own records about the Ghul assassination suggesting that any of the mass surveillance programs authorized under 215 or 702 played any role whatsoever in the government's “finding, fixing, and finishing” of the suspect. Instead, the records show that when the NSA wants to help the CIA find a suspected terrorist for its kill operations overseas, it deploys highly targeted methods like hacking into personal computers. 

Adding more information to the intelligence matrix makes it more difficult, not less, for authorities to identify truly dangerous people among us. Specific targeting of terrorism suspects for signals intelligence collection is sound procedure — regardless of whether or not we agree about what happens with that information after it is collected.

The latest WaPo story illustrates that the government doesn’t need to collect information about every single person in the United States in order to locate or identify terrorism suspects. Instead, the NSA's own records show that when it wants to find someone, it uses methods that have nothing to do with worldwide dragnets and have everything to do with drilling down into specific computers. Someone should tell Dianne Feinstein and Mike Rogers.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.