President Obama recently gave a speech about possible reforms at the NSA. Obama began his speech by invoking the name Paul Revere. He stated that Revere and the Sons of Liberty “would patrol the streets, reporting back any signs that the British were preparing raids against America’s early Patriots.” While, this did happen, there is one major difference between the Sons of Liberty and the NSA. Alexandra Petri of the Washington Post points out, “Paul Revere’s surveillance was conducted by private citizens against the soldiers and partisans of an occupying government they felt was infringing on their rights and liberties.” Which is the complete opposite of what the NSA is doing to individuals around the globe.
Obama goes on to claim that “emerging threats from terrorist groups, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction” after the collapse of the Soviet Union “placed new… demands on our intelligence agencies.” He added, “Globalization and the Internet made these threats more acute, as technology erased borders and empowered individuals to project great violence… [And after 9/11, our agencies] were asked to identify and target plotters in some of the most remote parts of the world, and to anticipate the actions of networks that, by their very nature, cannot be easily penetrated with spies or informants.”
Yes, Obama again promotes the claim that the federal government and more specifically the NSA needs the ability to spy on people to stop terrorists. However, when one looks at the numbers, they find this claim to be blatantly false. The NSA has never stopped a terrorist attack, ever. On January 13, the New America Foundation released a report in which they investigated the “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.” Only 17 of these cases were brought forth by the NSA, and only 1 of the cases brought forth by the NSA resulted in a conviction. The lone conviction wasn’t even related to an actual attack; Basaaly Moalin, a cab driver in San Diego was convicted of sending money to a group in Somalia that is associated with al-Qaeda. This one conviction is used as justification for collecting bulk metadata, which includes the time and date of the call as well as telephone numbers that originate and receive calls. After the NSA was able to link Moalin to Somalia via metadata, the FBI waited two months to investigate. Yet, the federal government continues to claim that NSA surveillance allows them to move quickly.
Last fall, Al-Jazeera uncovered a list of NSA talking points which includes the statements “After 9/11 it was determined the intelligence community failed to connect the dots,” and “I much prefer to be here today explaining these programs, than explaining another 9/11 event that we were not able to prevent.” It seems that President Obama is following that narrative. During his speech, he invoked 9/11 nine times, and cited “terrorist,” “terrorism,” and “terrorists” a total of sixteen times, while only mentioning individual freedom or liberty three times.
Obama said his reform proposals “should give the American people greater confidence that their rights are being protected, even as our intelligence and law enforcement agencies maintain the tools they need to keep us safe.” Those “reforms” boil down to a little more oversight from Congress and the courts, while falling very short of an end to the dragnet of surveillance that has been used by the NSA.