Jun 13, 2013
All over the headlines today, left, right, and center, general and technology press: “NSA: ‘Dozens of attacks’ prevented by snooping” (The Register); “NSA chief: Surveillance has stopped dozens of potential attacks” (Chicago Tribune); “NSA head: Surveillance program prevented dozens of terrorist attacks” (Salon); “Alexander: Phone Collection Has Prevented “Dozens” of Attacks” (Democracy Now).
However, the exchange in which this fact is revealed is by no means as clear as these stories and many others suggest. The exchange clearly begins with a discussion of two attacks, not dozens of attacks; and although Alexander does say “dozens of terrorist events” at first (line 8), Leahy goes out of his way to clarify and specify what Alexander means, and what he means is that dozens of call records out of the millions of call records collected have contributed to the discovery or disruption of terrorist attacks. Alexander has a clear opportunity to correct Leahy and instead calls Leahy’s summary “correct” (line 12). Based on this exchange, none of today’s headlines appear correct, and in fact entirely misstate the force of Leahy’s comment, which is that “Out of those millions [of call records], dozens have been critical.” Leahy’s point is clearly how very few of these records are implicated in terrorism at all, not that dozens of attacks have been prevented. A more accurate headline capturing the gist of this exchange would have been, “Only ‘dozens’ of the millions of collected of phone records were critical to preventing terrorism.”
Why do we get almost the exact opposite from almost every media outlet? I’ll refrain from speculating, but it’s hard not to believe that there are some powerful forces that would like to dredge up any evidence whatsoever of the broad usefulness of BLARNEY (the program being loosely discussed here, since it’s the one that collects phone records) and other programs for terrorism prevention.
1. Sen. Patrick Leahy: “Aside from these two cases, has the intelligence community kept track of how many times phone records obtained through Section 215 of the Patriot Act were critical to the discovery and disruption of terrorist threats?”
2. Gen. Keith Alexander: “I don’t have those figures today.”
3. Sen. Patrick Leahy: “Are those figures available?”
4. Gen. Keith Alexander: “We are going to make those figures available”
5. Sen. Patrick Leahy: “How soon?”
6. Gen. Keith Alexander: “Over the next week it would be our intent to get those figures out. I’ve talked to the Intel committee about that yesterday. I think it’s important to note”
7. Sen. Patrick Leahy: “You talked to the Intel committee yesterday but you didn’t have the figures yesterday.”
8. Gen. Keith Alexander: “I gave an approximate number to them in a classified — in a classified [briefing], but it’s dozens of terrorist events that these have helped prevent.”
9. Sen. Patrick Leahy: “OK, so dozens? Now we collect millions and millions and millions of records through 215, but dozens of them have proved crucial, critical, is that right?”
10. Gen. Keith Alexander: “For both here and abroad, in disrupting or contributing to the disruption of terrorist attacks.”
11. Sen. Patrick Leahy: “Out of those millions, dozens have been critical?
12. Gen. Keith Alexander: “That’s correct.”
Recording of this section of testimony on YouTube:
A recording of the full hearing is available here.