Privacy SOS

Spying on all of our phone calls might give the government ‘peace of mind,’ but it doesn’t stop terror attacks

Last week, NSA director General Keith Alexander offered a bizarre defense of his agency’s mass call records surveillance program. He said that while the program didn’t stop a bad thing from happening, it helped the government understand when a bad thing wouldn’t happen. The three letter agency men have taken to calling this the “peace of mind metric”. 

From the Washington Post (emphasis mine):

In a brief interview after his talk, Alexander said the program did not help identify the Boston suspects, brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. But he said that by using the database of domestic phone call records, the NSA was able to determine that fears about a follow-up attack in New York City were unfounded.

"We did use [Section] 215," he said, referring to the USA Patriot Act provision that the government has claimed a federal court has agreed gives it the authority to collect data on practically all calls made in the United States. "We used it to support the FBI in their investigation."

Let's recap! The call records program failed to stop a terrorist attack in a major US city. It also failed to assist the FBI in identifying their suspects. But the program is useful, the government claims, because it helped the NSA determine that the Tsarnaev brothers were not going to drive to New York City to execute an attack there. Of course, Alexander provides no explanation for this utterly bizarre and likely unfounded claim. 

It’s clear as day that the NSA’s surveillance programs didn’t do squat to stop the Boston Marathon attack; the government can't very well pretend the attack didn't happen. But the government can always make up a lie about how its mass surveillance stopped something bad from happening, or in this case, notified the government that something bad wasn’t going to happen. Officials play the "just trust us" card with respect to the former, and it’s awfully hard to prove the latter.

But this bizarre claim is flatly unbelievable on its face. How would a call records database tell the NSA whether or not the Tsarnaevs intended to drive to NYC to blow something up? The non-existence of calls to people in New York wouldn’t conclusively prove anything of the sort. The NSA says that the FBI used its call records database in support of its investigation, but that the phone records didn't help to identify the suspects. What gives?

All of these statements should be taken with more than a grain of salt, anyway. History suggests that there is little reason to believe anything the NSA director (or his colleague James "Not Wittingly" Clapper) says in public. Remember those “dozens” of supposed attacks that the NSA’s surveillance program stopped dead in their tracks? Yesterday Alexander basically admitted to having lied to congress about that, too. 

Pushing the general on his prior statements about the efficacy of the call records surveillance program, Senator Leahy asked about the "dozens" of terrorist plots the agency stopped: "These weren’t all plots, and they weren’t all foiled. Would you agree with that, yes or no?"

"Yes," said the spy master. 'Yes,' as in 'Yes I agree that I made up a totally unfounded lie to justify mass surveillance of US phone calls.'

Lying to the public and to congress about a vast surveillance system directed at the domestic population and constructed in the shadows? Just another day at the NSA.

We know enough to know we are getting royally screwed. Congress should give the public some peace of mind and repeal the law that authorizes this bulk records surveillance.  

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.