No doubt about effectiveness of mass metadata collection, claims federal judge — ignoring evidence to the contrary

Adam Serwer writes: When Judge William H. Pauley ruled that the National Security Agency’s metadata program was lawful on Friday, he argued that there was no significant dispute about “the effectiveness of bulk telephony metadata collection.”

Pauley — who issued his ruling from a courthouse less than two miles from where the twin towers once stood — then offered a series of examples cited by the NSA to bolster their claims that the program is effective, all of which have been “seriously disputed.”

Only four plots among the fifty-four the NSA claims to have helped foil have been made public. Pauley cited three of those four plots in arguing that the metadata program was effective, but journalists and legislators have picked already picked those examples apart. ProPublica published a piece in October by Justin Elliott and Theodoric Meyer noting that in each of the three cases Pauley mentions, there were serious doubts as to whether or not the NSA was exaggerating either the plot itself or the impact of the program.

Pauley cites the case of Najibullah Zazi, who was convicted of a plot to bomb the New York subway in 2009. An Associated Press examination concluded that the NSA had the authority to monitor the email account that lead to Zazi’s capture even without the authority to gather communications records in bulk.

Pauley also cited an effort by a man named Khalid Ouazzani to attack the New York Stock Exchange. But Ouazzani was convicted of funding al Qaeda, and as ProPublica notes neither he nor anyone else was ever actually charged or convicted of a plot to bomb the NYSE.

Pauley also cites the case of David Headley, who was involved in the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai and was involved in a plot to attack on a Danish newspaper which had published cartoons depicting the Islamic prophet Mohammed. But according to ProPublica, it was British intelligence, not the NSA’s datagathering, that first brought Headly to U.S. authorities’ attention.

All of this information would have been available to Pauley, because the ProPublica piece disputing the NSA’s claims was cited as a footnote in the prior ruling by Judge Richard Leon that found the NSA’s data gathering program unconstitutional. Pauley refers to Leon’s ruling multiple times in his own, indicating that he read it. [Continue reading…]

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2 thoughts on “No doubt about effectiveness of mass metadata collection, claims federal judge — ignoring evidence to the contrary

  1. hquain

    I’d conjecture that the forces driving this are pretty much independent of questions of current efficacy. They probably run something like this: (1) the need to appear furiously busy, (2) the ease of collecting and storing data, (3) the belief that someday they’ll be able to analyze it, and perhaps even that it’s invaluable to have Truly Big Data on hand to develop the techniques of analysis.

    From this, it’s only a short hop to believing that “exaggerations” (let’s be polite) about current efficacy are motivated, because they allow the program to continue while it’s in its analytical infancy.

    Would the WH, even if willing, be able to stop or divert this dynamic? I wonder.

  2. Paul Woodward

    What candor from the NSA or another other branch of the U.S. national security establishment would reveal — I believe — is that post 9/11, the national security obsession has not been driven by the need to prevent another 9/11; it has been driven by the need for each agency to escape blame for another 9/11.

    The only way of changing the dynamic is for someone to have the guts to say that there are plenty of things worse than another 9/11 — which for anyone in Washington would amount to expressing the worst imaginable heresy, since 9/11 has been given sacred significance within American identity.

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