Since official Washington's return to work from the winter holidays, there has been a steady clip of developments on NSA reform. The New America Foundation (NAF) published a strong critique yesterday of the effectiveness of the NSA's surveillance program. Its conclusion echoes a similar one reached by the president's NSA Review Group - the agency's mass surveillance program simply does not work.
The Review Group was unable to find a single example of the NSA's phone metadata program providing crucial intelligence in a terrorism investigation. The New America Foundation Report uses even stronger language, concluding that the administration's claims about the role of warrantless NSA surveillance programs in keeping Americans safe are "overblown and even misleading." In line with other investigations, the report determined that, at best, the metadata tracking program helped prosecute one plot to send $8,500 to al-Shabab in Somalia – at the cost of every American's privacy and untold tax dollars.
The push for legislative reform is also gaining strength. Today, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the Senate author of the USA FREEDOM Act, which would end the NSA's bulk collection of Americans' phone records, held a Judiciary Committee hearing on the president's Review Group report with all five of its members attending. The group pushed back on claims that the phone metadata program could have prevented 9/11, reiterated that the tracking program has not disrupted a terror attack, and made it clear that secrecy is anathema to democracy. On the House side, Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) has made it clear that robust oversight and reform legislation is necessary to "adequately protect American's civil liberties."
The NAF report also comes on the heels of last week's meetings at the White House with lawmakers, tech companies, and civil liberties advocates, including the ACLU, in preparation for President Obama's speech this Friday, during which he is expected to outline the reforms to the NSA programs he is willing to accept. While the White House has indicated an interest in some additional transparency measures to increase American confidence in government intelligence programs, we hope the president goes much further. He should follow his review group's recommendations, put an end to bulk surveillance, and begin the process of restoring the right to privacy.