Congress may be on the verge of prohibiting the NSA from continuing its bulk telephony metadata collection program. Two weeks ago, the Senate national security dissenters: Wyden, Udall, Paul, and Blumenthal proposed prohibition. Last week, the move received a major boost from a bipartisan proposal by core establishment figures: Senator Patrick Leahy, and Representatives Jim Sensenbrenner and John Conyers.
It's a prohibition whose time has come. Dragnet surveillance, or bulk collection, goes to the heart of what is wrong with the turn the NSA has taken since 2001. It implements a perpetual "state of emergency" mentality that inverts the basic model outlined by the fourth amendment: that there are vast domains of private action about which the state should remain ignorant unless it provides clear prior justification. And all public evidence suggests that, from its inception in 2001 to this day, bulk collection has never made more than a marginal contribution to securing Americans from terrorism, despite its costs.
In a 2 October hearing of the Senate judiciary committee, Senator Leahy challenged the NSA chief, General Keith Alexander:
Would you agree that the 54 cases that keep getting cited by the administration were not all plots, and that of the 54 only 13 had some nexus to the US? Would you agree with that, yes or no?Leahy then demanded that Alexander confirm what his deputy, Christopher Inglis, had said in the prior week's testimony: that there is only one example where collection of bulk data is what stopped a terrorist activity. Alexander responded that Inglis might have said two, not one.
~ from Fact: The NSA Gets Negligible Intel from Americans' Metadata: So End Collection by Yochal Benkler ~
Defenders of the NSA's mass surveillance programs proclaim over and over again that such programs are of critical importance to the agency's mission. Benkler has rightly pointed out that there is little substantive data in terms of thwarting terrorism to back up these claims. So, on this limited basis, it would seem that Obama's chief spooks are lying.
However, if we step back to take a look at the broader picture, I don't think they are being dishonest at all. These mass surveillance programs indeed are critical, it's just that the true reason is left unstated and barely mentioned by the mainstream media. The mass surveillance apparatus isn't really focused on thwarting terrorism at all -- its primary mission is to quell domestic dissent!
It is because the true mission is secret that we won't be hearing about situations in which metadata has proven beneficial. The government wants to keep us in the dark as to which one of us is being targeted or which of us they are keeping tabs on. By keeping the mission and evidence secret, we must assume that they are watching each of us. (They probably are!)