Officials have said that NSA surveillance tools have helped disrupt terrorist plots or identify suspects in 54 cases in the United States and overseas. In many of those cases, an agency program that targets the communication of foreigners, including e-mails, has proved critical.
But the importance of the phone logs in disrupting those plots has been less clear — and also far more controversial since it was revealed in June.
Across a dozen years of records collection, critics say, the government has offered few instances in which the massive storehouse of Americans’ records contained the first crucial lead that cracked a case — and even those, they say, could have been obtained through a less intrusive method.
“There’s no reason why NSA needed to have its own database containing the phone records of millions of innocent Americans in order to get the information related to Moalin,” said Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), a Senate Intelligence Committee member who has been pressing officials for evidence of the program’s effectiveness. “It could have just as easily gone directly to the phone companies with an individualized court order.”
U.S. officials say that the NSA’s programs often work in conjunction with one another — and that taking away a critical ability such as the “bulk collection” of phone records would undermine the agency’s effort to prevent terrorist attacks.
“You essentially have a range of tools at your disposal — one or more of these tools might tip you to a plot, other [tools] might then give you an exposure as to what the nature of that plot is,” NSA Deputy Director John C. Inglis told a Senate panel last week. “Finally, the exercise of multiple instruments of power, to include law enforcement power, ultimately completes the picture and allows you to interdict that plot.”
The NSA collects its vast digital archive of phone records under a provision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. U.S. officials emphasize that those logs do not contain the names of customers or content — just “metadata,” which includes phone numbers and the times and dates of calls. They note that they need a “reasonable, articulable suspicion” that a number they wish to check in the database is linked to a foreign terrorist group.
And they say that without having all the calls in one place and easily searchable with a keystroke, finding links to suspicious numbers would be tedious and time-consuming.