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Cato scholar cites 3 reasons why NSA bulk data collection is unnecessary

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Supporters of the National Security Agency's collection of phone records and metadata use debunked claims and weak arguments to prove their point, according to Cato Institute scholar Julian Sanchez.

Sanchez, responding to Sen. Dianne Feinstein's recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal defending the NSA program, called the case in favor of bulk collection “extraordinarily weak.”

Sanchez cited three claims by NSA supporters that he believes are incorrect:

1. NSA’s domestic spy program wouldn’t have stopped 9/11

A frequently heard argument that NSA supporters use to defend the collection program is asserting that it would have stopped the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington.

Not so, said Sanchez. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order regarding the collection program requires that phone records recorded by NSA be “(i) between the United States and abroad; or (ii) wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls.”

Sanchez argued that the first category could identify calls to and from a terrorist safehouse, but that the NSA could have obtained those records if they had a specific suspect.

The next question then becomes, “what if the U.S. didn’t have a suspect?” In that case, having all the phone records still wouldn’t have helped, as the NSA wouldn’t know where to begin.

In regards to 9/11 specifically, the government could have identified the hijacker Khalid al Mindhar, but, according to Sanchez, they failed “for reasons having more to do with the intelligence community’s internal dysfunction than any lack of raw data.”

Sanchez pointed to an article by ProPublica's Justin Elliott, who cited intelligence experts who claimed the NSA had “both the ability and legal authority to trace calls” prior to 9/11.

So, in reality, whatever usefulness bulk collection provided was already available prior to the 9/11 attacks.

2. The program hasn’t uniquely disrupted any 'terrorist events'

Feinstein said the NSA’s database enabled U.S. officials to break up at least 54 “terrorist events.” The big caveat there, as Sanchez pointed out, is that the claim is always that the collection database “and other NSA programs” helped stop those events.

“As several of Feinstein's colleagues on the Intelligence Committee pointed out back in June, the call-records program played ‘little or no role' in disrupting those ‘events' -- it was the ‘other programs' that did the heavy lifting,” Sanchez said.

“One could just as easily say that tarot readings — in combination with other programs — helped disrupt terrorism.”

NSA Director Keith Alexander admitted in a Senate Judiciary hearing Oct. 2 that only one or two of the 54 terror events were foiled with help from the NSA's collection program.

But, as Sanchez noted, former FBI Director Robert Mueller, in an affidavit to the FISC, said the collection database provided information “the FBI inevitably would have discovered via other investigative techniques.”

Sanchez said the bulk collection possibly could help the FBI discover such information more quickly, but he said, “it’s hard to believe it’s value commensurate with the scale of the intrusion on the privacy of innocent citizens.”

And since the NSA program isn’t stopping terror attacks, the need for it seems even less significant.

3. 'Peace of mind?' Seriously?

Sanchez’s third point focused on the absurd claim that collecting every innocent Americans’ phone records provided “peace of mind” by letting the government know Americans aren’t doing anything nefarious.

Maybe that makes Big Government proponents feel safer, but the innocent Americans having their metadata and phone records collected sure feel less safer as far as their privacy is concerned.

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