NSA Track Record Prompts Senate Skepticism

Posted June 8, 2015 at 12:12pm

Senators brushed off Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s concerns about the viability of requiring the National Security Agency to go to the phone companies to get records in terrorism investigations and easily passed the USA Freedom Act last week.

The reason they could be so sanguine about it: They don’t believe the records searches — which show the numbers called by suspected terrorists, as well as numbers called by those receiving those calls — are a very useful tool to begin with.

Their skepticism stems from the mixed messages the Obama administration has provided about the program’s usefulness. Two years ago, then-NSA chief Keith Alexander said the program had helped foil 54 terrorist plots.

But as senators began to examine the claim, they found it lacking.

It turned out Alexander was conflating different NSA authorities, exaggerating plots and overstating the NSA’s success in responding to others. In actuality, there were only one or two plots that the bulk phone records played a direct role in uncovering. The episode not only raised doubts about the importance of the program, but about the honesty of the NSA’s leadership.

“Of the original 54 instances the executive branch pointed to, every one of them crumbled under scrutiny,” Sen. Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat, said during last week’s debate. “None of them actually justified the continued existence of the bulk collection program.”

NSA supporters tried to counter that claim, arguing the phone records provided important clues in terrorism cases, even if they weren’t game changers.

But the detractors responded with another theory: The NSA would be more effective if it dedicated the resources it spends searching phone records to other sorts of espionage.

“We are taking resources away from the human analysts,” Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul said.