Report: Terrorist Threats Uncovered by Traditional Police Work, Not NSA Surveillance

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January 16, 2014

A January 2014 report from the New American Foundation reveals that “traditional investigative methods such as the use of informants, tips from local communities, and targeted intelligence operations” were more useful in uncovering terror investigations than bulk data collection. The report comes in response to arguments from the Obama administration that phone meta-data collection under section 215 of the Patriot Act has been a significant benefit to countering terrorism, and should remain in place.

According to the authors, “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.” This conclusion arises from a review of terrorism cases in the U.S. The report found that only around 8 percent of the cases were started because of information from bulk data collection. There was evidence of only one case where terrorist activity was prevented thanks to information gleaned from NSA surveillance.

Less clear was the extent to which Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act was useful or not in terrorism investigations.  Section 702 allows for the content of phone calls to be recorded and stored, so long as the NSA is at least 51 percent sure one of the callers is a non-U.S. person. But a lack of known details about the program made assessing its usefulness in terrorism investigations difficult according to the authors of the report. A White House review panel’s assessment of 702 suggested that it had produced “significant information” in many cases—but the report authors cautioned that the assessment did not conclude if any investigation would have turned out differently without the use of section 702 authorities.