A new paper published Monday by the New America Foundation demonstrably destroys the US government claim that bulk metadata collection is useful. (Three US senators made the same claim back in November 2013.) The paper’s lead author is Peter Bergen, a journalist and terrorism analyst who famously interviewed Osama bin Laden for CNN in 1997.
The 32-page document (PDF) closely examines the 225 cases in which terror suspects were:
…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, demonstrat[ing] 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.
. . .
Surveillance of American phone metadata has had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism and only the most marginal of impacts on preventing terrorist-related activity, such as fundraising for a terrorist group.
The study concluded that “traditional investigative methods,” including the use of informants, community/family tips, are actually far more effective.
The researchers also show that individualized and targeted warrants issued through traditional criminal courts or by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) are fully capable of obtaining detailed information—particularly on the content of digital correspondence—that is otherwise legally unobtainable.