The NSA Helps Some Legislators Sleep At Night

Foreign Policy added a good bit on Friday from Elias Groll assessing the current potential for changes to the NSA’s data hoovering programs. Contained within is a particularly glorious piece of obfuscatory rhetoric from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI), and Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD) that deserves a closer look.

The panel appointed by President Obama to examine NSA intelligence gathering, “said it was completely unconvinced that the collection of telephone records had stopped any terror plots.” In response, the quintet assert:

“The necessity of this program cannot be measured merely by the number of terrorist attacks disrupted, but must also take into account the extent to which it contributes to the overall efforts of intelligence professionals to quickly respond to, and prevent, rapidly emerging terrorist threats.”

This statement is logically incoherent.

They seem to tacitly accept the panel’s skepticism regarding the utility of the phone records collection program, but try to make the case for it anyway by saying that the program’s importance can’t, “be measured merely by the number of terrorist attacks disrupted.”

So “the number of terrorist attacks disrupted” isn’t a valid criterion on which to judge the efficacy of a counter-terror program. But “contributions to overall efforts to…prevent emerging terrorist threats” apparently is. What? The mind boggles. I’ll admit, I wasn’t an English major, so maybe there are some deeper meanings flying cheerfully over my head, but how is “preventing emerging terrorist threats” not included within the scope of “terrorist attacks disrupted”? They’re the same thing.

To be fair, I suppose one could make the argument that while intelligence from a particular source hadn’t played a role in directly facilitating the operations undertaken to interrupt the terrorist attacks themselves, it had been crucial in giving analysts and policy planners a better understanding of the threat environment. Or something. But you’d think a panel of presidentially-appointed experts (who, if anything, have an incentive to make the program look as good as possible) would have the ability to make that kind of distinction. Also, if that is the argument Sen. Feinstein & Co. are trying to make…why not just make it? Instead of subjecting us to this nonsense.

As it’s written, all their statement says is, “Sure, you may have evidence suggesting this program is useless, does nothing to enhance national security, and also violates the 4th Amendment, but it makes us feel safe. So we really think you should keep it.”