When Can You Trust the NSA’s Claims About the NSA?

Gen. Keith Alexander (photo: DoD/Cherie Cullen)

Gen. Keith Alexander (photo: DoD/Cherie Cullen)

If you’ve followed the debate over NSA surveillance, you know that the NSA and its defenders like to claim the programs are key to stopping terrorists.

Except when they admit otherwise–which is what happened this week.

Back on June 18, the House Intelligence Committee held a hearing about NSA disclosures, during which NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander claimed that

these programs, together with other intelligence, have protected the U.S. and our allies from terrorist threats across the globe to include helping prevent potential terrorist events over 50 times since 9/11.

But this week (10/2/13), the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing where Alexander admitted that such claims are very misleading.

Many news outlets reported Alexander’s original claims, as they came in the midst of the debate triggered by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Under the headline “NSA Director: Surveillance Foiled 50 Terror Plots,” USA Today‘s Kevin Johnson (6/19/13) wrote that Alexander

told a House committee Tuesday that more than 50 terror threats throughout the world have been disrupted with the assistance of two secret surveillance programs that were recently disclosed by former defense contractor Edward Snowden. More than 10 of the plots targeted the U.S. homeland, Alexander told the House Intelligence Committee, including a plot to attack the New York Stock Exchange.

And during a June 18 panel on Fox News Special Report,  the show’s panelists agreed that Alexander’s claims would reassure the public over the effectiveness of the programs. The Hill‘s A.B. Stoddard said this to Fox about Alexander’s comments and similar assurances by the White House:

This is an explanation the American public should have heard right away and they didn’t…. I think this is a good PR effort on behalf of the administration, but I think people get that this is one of the only tools left, since we don’t capture, and we kill not in land war but mostly by drones, we don’t have a lot of intelligence. This is really our best, most effective tool.

As a new piece in Extra! (10/13) explains, media often encourage the notion that NSA surveillance is what prevents terrorist attacks–based solely on claims to that effect made by lawmakers invited on to chat shows to make such claims.

Sen. Pat Leahy (cc phto: Lingjing Bao/Talk Radio News)

Sen. Pat Leahy (cc phto: Lingjing Bao/Talk Radio News)

So it was newsworthy that the NSA’s Alexander seemed to change his tune at the October 1 hearing. The Guardian‘s Paul Lews (10/2/13) wrote about Alexander’s exchange with Senator Pat Leahy:

[Leahy] drew attention to repeated claims by the intelligence agencies that 54 terrorist attacks had been thwarted by two particular programs.

“That is plainly wrong, but we still get it in letters to members of Congress, [and] we get it in statements,” Leahy said. “These weren’t all plots, and they weren’t all thwarted. The American people are getting left with inaccurate reflection of the NSA’s programs.”

Alexander then conceded that the 54 examples were “not all plots” and only 13 had a nexus in the U.S. He also admitted there were only “one or possibly two” cases of terrorist activity that would not have been prevented “but for” section 215 of the Patriot Act, which authorises bulk phone record collection.

This exchange should have received more attention, considering how often vague claims about how NSA wiretapping stops terrorism is used to blunt criticism of the NSA. But it would seem media are more eager to carry messages to the effect of “NSA spying works” rather than admissions from the NSA that the record isn’t quite so impressive.