The news: A new report released January 13 by the New America Foundation has found that the phone surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency in the name of preventing terrorist attacks has done basically zilch for anti-terrorism efforts in the United States.
It's not that the failure of the NSA's phone record collection has led to rampant terrorism – it's that other methods at preventing attacks have proved more successful. The NAF report looked at 227 cases of terrorist activity in the U.S. and found that things like "conventional law enforcement" and "intelligence techniques" that actually used court-ordered subpoenas and warrants played a greater role in prevention than the NSA's bulk phone surveillance, and that the "contribution of the NSA's bulk surveillance programs to these cases was minimal."
So that whole thing about the NSA's surveillance being imperative to national security? The NAF report called this defense "overblown and even misleading." NSA phone surveillance operations have "had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism."
What this means: President Barack Obama is planning to announce an overhaul of NSA operations on January 17. With this new report fresh in Americans' minds, Obama's proposed changes better have some real teeth. He's going to have a very hard time relying on the defense that the NSA's phone surveillance is preventing countless terrorist attacks because according to the NAF, it isn't.
And now that even the New York Times is calling for clemency for Edward Snowden, it seems that perhaps reform is a possibility. Included in Obama's plans for the NSA are expanding privacy protections to non-U.S. citizens and setting up an advocate for privacy rights to argue in front of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court.
But for a program that apparently does very little in the way of actual terrorism prevention and a lot in the way of mass surveillance of American citizens, those reforms might not be enough. According to the NAF, the NSA surveillance operations don't actually prevent terrorism activity. It's up to Obama to convince us that it actually does something beneficial, and that it's worth reforming instead of dismantling.