Mar 30, 2015 · 2 minutes

Supporters of the National Security Agency's surveillance programs have argued that the ability to collect information about potential threats is needed to protect the United States from attacks. But even the NSA has questioned those claims.

According to the Associated Press, the NSA considered abandoning a program that allowed it to collect and store Americans' call records before it was revealed to the public by contractor-turned-whistleblower Edward Snowden in June 2013.

Anonymous "current and former intelligence officials" told the AP that "some officials believed the costs outweighed the meager counterterrorism benefits." Yet the internal debate about the program was never revealed to the public.

Perhaps that's because the program has already been roundly criticized for degrading privacy without providing tangible security benefits. As the New America Foundation reported when officials said NSA programs stopped attacks:

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 – that of Basaaly Moalin, a San Diego cabdriver who in 2007 and 2008 provided $8,500 to al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia – calls into question the necessity of the Section 215 bulk collection program.
The law authorizing the call records program expires in June. NSA supporters have started what the American Civil Liberties Union calls the "drumbeat of doom" to convince people that ending the program puts people at risk. Yet, as the same New America Foundation report found, that simply isn't the case:
There's just one problem with this particular bit of emotional blackmail, however. The pesky, rather inconvenient fact is that the government's mass surveillance programs operating under Section 215 of the Patriot Act have never stopped an act of terrorism. That is not the opinion of the NSA's most ardent critics, but rather the findings of the president's own review board and the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. This program has had over a decade to prove its value, and yet there is no evidence that it has helped identify a terrorism suspect or 'made a concrete different in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation.'
Few people outside the NSA believe the program is necessary for the country's security. Now it's clear that at least some officials inside the agency had the same thoughts long before the program was made public. So who genuinely believes that the law authorizing this program needs to be renewed to keep people safe?

Probably no one. But the NSA is like a dog with a chew toy: It may abandon the toy if left to its own devices, but it's going to bark and bite and throw a temper tantrum if anyone tries to take it away.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]