Privacy SOS

Officials say mass surveillance keeps us safe, but provide zero evidence for the claim

The executive branch tells us that it needs to vacuum up our personal and associational information because its dragnet surveillance programs stop terrorist attacks. But the three letter agencies have produced absolutely zero evidence to support that claim.

Since public support for the NSA's dragnet to a large degree hinges on its effectiveness, it’s absolutely critical that we test the veracity of this assertion. Multiple polls over the years have shown that some people are willing to give up privacy in exchange for security. But what if there is no such exchange?

A new ProPublica investigative report shines a spotlight on the government's defense of mass spying, drilling down to discover the available truth. The verdict: the government is still lying to us about these surveillance programs, and has produced not one shred of evidence to support its wild claims tying dragnet spying to the arrest of terrorist plots against the United States.

If you say something enough, does it become true?

The NSA will tell anyone with ears that its surveillance programs protect the United States against terrorist attacks, and that without them we would face the threat of catastrophic violence. The agency's representatives have repeatedly told the public and lawmakers that its mass surveillance operations have stopped 54 terrorist attacks. As ProPublica illustrates, various politicians subsequently went around parroting that claim, trotting it out in defense of their pro-surveillance positions and votes.

But what are the available facts? Are those 54 examples legitimate? We can't say for sure about all of them because only four of the supposed 54 cases are known to the public. The NSA says that dragnet spying stopped terrorist plots in the following four scenarios, laid out succinctly here by ProPublica:

  • The case of Basaaly Moalin, the San Diego man convicted of sending $8,500 to Somalia to support Al Shabab, the terrorist group that has taken responsibility for the attack on a Kenyan mall last month. The NSA has said its collection of American phone records allowed it to determine that a U.S. phone was in contact with a Shabab figure, which in turn led them to Moalin. NSA critic Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has argued that the NSA could have gotten a court order to get the phone records in question and that the case does not justify the bulk collection of Americans' phone records.
  • The case of Najibullah Zazi, who in 2009 plotted to bomb the New York subway system. The NSA has said that an email it intercepted to an account of a known Al Qaeda figure in Pakistan allowed authorities to identify and ultimately capture Zazi. But an Associated Press examination of the case concluded that, again, the NSA's account of the case did not show the need for the new warrantless powers at issue in the current debate. “Even before the surveillance laws of 2007 and 2008, the FBI had the authority to — and did, regularly — monitor email accounts linked to terrorists,” the AP reported.
  • A case involving David Coleman Headley, the Chicago man who helped plan the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack. Intelligence officials have said that NSA surveillance helped thwart a subsequent plot involving Headley to attack a Danish newspaper. A ProPublica examination of that episode concluded that it was a tip from British intelligence, rather than NSA surveillance, that led authorities to Headley.
  • A case involving a purported plot to attack the New York Stock Exchange. This convoluted episode involves three Americans, including Khalid Ouazzani of Kansas City, Mo., who pleaded guilty in 2010 to bank fraud, money laundering, and conspiracy to provide material support to Al Qaeda. An FBI official said in June that NSA surveillance helped in the case “to detect a nascent plotting to bomb the New York Stock Exchange." But no one has been charged with crimes related to that or any other planned attack. (Ouazzani was sentenced to 14 years last month.)

To recap: the government has produced information about four situations in which it says NSA dragnet spying provided critical leads to stop terrorism plots. But as you can see, not one of them holds up when subjected to scrutiny.

The only time the mass domestic surveillance programs were useful in a so-called ‘terrorism’ case was when the program gave the NSA information about the transfer of about $8,500 from a San Diego man to a group in Somalia. That is, the government is justifying a mass surveillance program — implicating the personal and associational information of literally every single person in the United States with a phone — because one time, officials say, they used the program to catch a guy sending less than $10k to a group engaged in a regional war in Africa.  

But even this case fails the smell test. As Senator Ron Wyden points out, if the NSA identified money-transferring-Moalin using the phone records of a Somali terror suspect in Somalia, it could have simply obtained a court order to access information about people that one particular suspect communicated with in the United States. Even the Moalin case, weak to begin with because it has nothing to do with any kind of domestic terrorist plot, fails to justify the domestic dragnet.

We have seen zero evidence to show the NSA's programs work to keep us safe, but what if there's something we don't know?

Some people might say that the NSA probably has some examples showing how the domestic surveillance programs have stopped terrorist attacks, but that the agency can’t tell the public about them because disclosing related information could compromise ongoing operations. To those people, I ask: Do you read the news much?

This is a public relations war, and if officials had real ammunition, they would use it. If the government had any evidence to show that its mass spying operations had any measurable impact on our security, it would never stop talking about them. The President himself would probably host a live briefing on a red carpet to brag about the dragnet's importance and success. That hasn't happened, and I'm almost certain that it's because no such victories exist.

Data-profiling and mass spying harm public safety, democracy

A recent report shows NSA isn't the only agency with a major public relations problem sucking up and data mining vast quantities of information about Americans for so-called 'security' purposes.

The TSA recently announced that it plans to perform so-called ‘security checks’ on everyone who flies — before we show up at the airport. We still have to take our shoes off and go through the excruciatingly obnoxious performance of security theater at TSA checkpoints, but now there’s an extra — if silent — layer of humiliation. Starting soon, before we even step foot near the airport we will have been digitally strip searched, data mined, and profiled. But towards what end? 

Like NSA surveillance, which sucks up billions of public dollars that could be better spent on things that actually help people stay alive, TSA's new digital security theater will actually hurt public safety.

The agency intends to assign risk scores to travelers based on criteria contained in our DHS dossiers, as well as public and private databases. Terrorist organizations interested in blowing up airports or airplanes are unlikely to pick operatives who have high risk scores. As Bruce Schneier says, "Focusing on a profile increases the risk that TSA agents will miss those who don’t match it." Risk-profiling is bad security policy as well as an anti-democratic attack on our freedoms. It will likely result in even more racist airport profiling of Muslims, South Asians, and Arabs. 

Whether it’s the NSA, TSA or your local police department doing it, all the available evidence shows that mass surveillance isn’t really about public safety. History shows that dragnet spying is actually about social and political control. Adding more and more information to the haystack makes finding dangerous people difficult. But it makes targeting dissidents, political opponents, or other enemies easy as pie. 

The government should stop lying to the public to justify its unconstitutional surveillance dragnets, and institute sane security policies based on evidence-based methodologies, not hysteria. If you are tired of being manipulated by fear and falsehoods, take action now.

Interested in raising your voice in the streets this weekend in Washington DC? There’s still time to get bus tickets or arrange transportation. Let’s not look back and wish we had done more to ensure a free future. This is a critical moment in the history of our country and the world. Together we must seize it.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.