Questioning the Efficacy of NSA's Bulk-Collection Programs
Two reports have recently been published questioning the efficacy of the NSA’s bulk-collection programs. The first one is from the left-leaning New American Foundation (report here, and one-page tabular summary here).
However, our review of the government’s claims about the role that NSA “bulk” surveillance of phone and email communications records has had in keeping the United States safe from terrorism shows that these claims are overblown and even misleading. An in-depth analysis of 225 individuals recruited by al-Qaeda or a like-minded group or inspired by al-Qaeda’s ideology, and charged in the United States with an act of terrorism since 9/11, demonstrates that traditional investigative methods, such as the use of informants, tips from local communities, and targeted intelligence operations, provided the initial impetus for investigations in the majority of cases, while the contribution of NSA’s bulk surveillance programs to these cases was minimal. Indeed, the controversial bulk collection of American telephone metadata, which includes the telephone numbers that originate and receive calls, as well as the time and date of those calls but not their content, under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, appears to have played an identifiable role in initiating, at most, 1.8 percent of these cases. NSA programs involving the surveillance of non-U.S. persons outside of the United States under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act played a role in 4.4 percent of the terrorism cases we examined, and NSA surveillance under an unidentified authority played a role in 1.3 percent of the cases we examined.
My conclusion is simple: neither of these cases demonstrates that bulk phone records collection is effective. Those records did not make a significant contribution to success against the 2009 plot because at the point at which the NSA searched the bulk records database, the FBI already had sufficient information to disrupt the plot. It is also unlikely that bulk collection would have helped disrupt the 9/11 attacks, given critical barriers to information sharing and as demonstrated by the wealth of information already available to the intelligence community about al-Mihdhar.