snowdenfeature

Michael Rogers, the new director of the National Security Agency, said in an interview published today in the New York Times that Edward Snowden’s decision to leak information about the agency’s surveillance programs hasn’t led him to believe that the sky is falling. Have terrorists changed their habits since the programs were revealed? Yes. Have they referenced information learned from news reports based on the documents Snowden leaked? Rogers said that they have. But have those changes stopped the NSA from surveilling those terrorists? Nope, they haven’t. It seems that one of the greatest lies spread after Snowden’s leaks might finally be put to rest.

Countless people have argued that Snowden’s decision to reveal the existence of the NSA’s surveillance programs will allow terrorists to evade the agency and carry out plots, leaving the United States powerless to stop them. So far as an argument for keeping those programs secret goes, it’s a pretty good one — or at least it would have been had the people making it been able to provide a single shred of evidence proving that these programs prevented a single terrorist attack when their claims were questioned.

The New America Foundation skewered those claims with a report studying the effect these bulk surveillance programs have had on the government’s ability to prevent terrorist attacks. It concluded that there’s no evidence supporting those claims, and that the single case provided by the government actually makes the bulk surveillance programs less defensible than before:

Surveillance of American phone metadata has had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism and only the most marginal of impacts on preventing terrorist-related activity, such as fundraising for a terrorist group. Furthermore, our examination of the role of the database of U.S. citizens’ telephone metadata in the single plot the government uses to justify the importance of the program [...] calls into question the necessity of the Section 215 bulk collection program. [...] This undercuts the government’s theory that the database of Americans’ telephone metadata is necessary to expedite the investigative process, since it clearly didn’t expedite the process in the single case the government uses to extol its virtues.

But the publication of this report — and others that produced no evidence supporting claims that bulk surveillance programs have prevented terrorist attacks — didn’t stop people from claiming that Snowden’s whistleblowing had compromised the US’s ability to defend itself. As former Pando writer David Sirota explained in a blog post on the subject written for Salon:

These are the inconvenient truths that NSA defenders do not want the public to know because they threaten to ignite a powerful backlash against the surveillance state. Thus, without countervailing facts of their own, the agency’s defenders are resorting to an age-old public relations trick: They are trying to scream a scary motto (in this case, “national security!”) as often and as loudly as possible to either distract everyone’s attention or fully drown out any fact-based discourse.

Rogers appears to be taking a different tack. Instead of pretending that one of the world’s largest intelligence agencies has been crippled by the efforts of a lone whistleblower, he said in his interview with the Times that the NSA is adapting to the shifting landscape faster than its targets are using the information revealed by Snowden. That doesn’t excuse the agency for its systematic erosion of personal liberty, but at least Rogers isn’t going to hide behind the drumbeat of “the terrorists will win!” like so many others have.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]