Wyden and Udall: As with Torture, Intelligence Committee Lies about Efficacy

Mark Udall and Ron Wyden have persistently repeated one of the findings from the Senate Intelligence Committee torture report: the CIA gave inaccurate information about the program, and it wasn’t very effective.

So it’s unsurprising that they would go beyond their past questions whether the Section 215 dragnet of US person call records is effective to make it clear they had pushed for the Internet metadata program to be ended because it, too, is ineffective.

We are quite familiar with the bulk email records collection program that operated under the USA Patriot Act and has now been confirmed by senior intelligence officials. We were very concerned about this program’s impact on Americans’ civil liberties and privacy rights, and we spent a significant portion of 2011 pressing intelligence officials to provide evidence of its effectiveness. They were unable to do so, and the program was shut down that year.


Intelligence officials have noted that the bulk email records program was discussed with both Congress and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. In our judgment it is also important to note that intelligence agencies made statements to both Congress and the Court that significantly exaggerated this program’s effectiveness. This experience demonstrates to us that intelligence agencies’ assessments of the usefulness of particular collection programs – even significant ones – are not always accurate. This experience has also led us to be skeptical of claims about the value of the bulk phone records collection program in particular.

We believe that the broader lesson here is that even though intelligence officials may be well-intentioned, assertions from intelligence agencies about the value and effectiveness of particular programs should not simply be accepted at face value by policymakers or oversight bodies any more than statements about the usefulness of other government programs should be taken at face value when they are made by other government officials. It is up to Congress, the courts and the public to ask the tough questions and press even experienced intelligence officials to back their assertions up with actual evidence, rather than simply deferring to these officials’ conclusions without challenging them.

We look forward to continuing the debate about the effectiveness of the ongoing Patriot Act phone records collection program in the days and weeks ahead.

This is actually what the Inspectors General have implied: that it’s not clear these programs are effective.

So why are we collecting dragnets of American communications for no good reason?

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

13 replies
  1. der says:

    When I ask myself this question I find it’s not tinfoil hat out there unbelievable that, as Chris Hedges says, they (the Pentagon and their political toadies) know what’s coming with climate catastrophe. So all of it: Snowden, lying to Congress, bullshit political promises – is a side show to getting things in order. Fortress America, what will 300 million eat? They haven’t thought it that far, you can be sure of it. The paranoia of Our Best and Brightest. Oorah.

  2. Duncan Hare says:

    “So why are we collecting dragnets of American communications for no good reason?”

    Because the bureaucracy has “to do something” and this is “something.”

    The alternative is root cause analysis, and all root cause analysis (don’t behaving in a manner that angers billions of people enough so a small number of the billions become willing to kill) lead through the Israelis’ treatment of the Palestinians.

  3. Yastreblyansky says:

    It’s also lining somebody’s pockets, of course. That’s “privatization”.

    I’ve been wondering when people were going to get around to seeing this. I can’t see how anybody who has ever worked in an office, or watched “The Office”, or read a Dilbert cartoon could have looked at those Prism PowerPoint slides without understanding immediately that the program is a fraud being perpetrated by the lower-downs on the higher-ups. It’s the reason why these revelations don’t make me paranoid: we have much more to fear from the old-fashioned devices of profiling and entrapment.

  4. joanneleon says:

    Irrational and reckless behavior in so many arenas. I was uncomfortable before. Tonight, I’m actually fearful. This is a country with the ability to do untold damage and we don’t have rational leadership.

  5. Bitter Angry Drunk says:

    Yep. Data has tremendous business value. Step one. Get all the data.

    Of course data becomes exponentially more valuable when you have the tools to zero in on what matters. That’s step two and they’re working on it. In the meantime, a handful of people are making scads of money as is. And making money for narrow, private interests is about the only justification for doing anything in this country anymore…

  6. Jessica says:

    For sure, a large portion of its continuation has to be the industry it supports. I just finished James Bamford’s latest piece in Wired, God of War, about Keith Alexander and his cyber army, and Bamford details all the money poured into cyber “defense”. It’s incredible. So how exactly does one slowdown the speeding train that is this lobby? I’m extremely pessimistic.

  7. orionATL says:

    neither the presidents obush nor the congresses give a rat’s ass about the effectiveness of either the torture or the electronic spying programs because their support for these programs – and all, yes ALL, of the war on terrorism – are based not on their effectiveness , they clearly are not competent to “stop terrorism”, but rather on what enacting these programs will do for these politicians’ political power, or put differently, what attacks on their political power would be possible, and possibly effective, if they did not promote torture by the cia or electronic spying by nsa.

    both bush and, astonishingly to me now obama, have been clearly revealed as foolish dupes of the military/security bureaucrats in washington (dickhead cheney, recall, was once secretary of defense).

  8. orionATL says:

    does the nsa give purloined data to

    the dept of state?

    the department of treasury?

    the department of commerce?

    the department of ministry of the interior?

    the nsa could not possibly have enough analysts who are knowledgeable about matters these agencies are interested in to provide the agencies with finished reports,

    so they must share the more or less raw data they have stolen with other usg agencies, right?

  9. thatvisionthing says:

    “So why are we collecting dragnets of American communications for no good reason?”

    Ends justify the means?

    Which means leadership fail. By definition. By oath.

  10. C says:

    @orionATL: The answer to the above is probably “yes” one little commented on change in the state of affairs is that intelligence data can now be widely shared. Indeed DNI Clapper now has the authority to transfer data to and from many different groups making the distinction between the departments largely symbolic. Moreover the DOD has actually transferred a large number of its intel groups over to the DNI leaving only the State Department and the DOJ as nominally independent. Now however we know that the FBI (part of the DOJ) is supplying data to their NSA “customers” (see the new PRISM slides at the Washington Post) thus there is little distinction there.

    Of course it gets even worse as the practice of forming “Fusion Centers” with local police agencies and those agencies (e.g. NYPD) cooperating with private security (e.g. Citibank) means that this data can easily travel down to local law enforcement or out to a megabank with little to stop it. And little public record.

  11. C says:

    So why are we collecting dragnets of American communications for no good reason?

    It is institutional psychology. 9/11 didn’t just puncture Americans’ notions of safety it punctured the FBI, NSA, CIA, the government’s image of efficacy. They acted as if they were on top of it all and believed it. Bin Laden demonstrated that they were wrong. Snowden is now demonstrating that they are wrong.

    What we are seeing with the overreach, the zealous spying, the waterboarding, and the drone wars everywhere are securoucrats lashing out in anger. The fact that this anger is financially beneficial for some means that they are enabling it but at the root level the effectiveness may be secondary to the need to “do something!”

  12. edge says:

    “This experience demonstrates to us that intelligence agencies’ assessments of the usefulness of particular collection programs – even significant ones – are not always accurate…. We believe that the broader lesson here is that e… assertions from intelligence agencies … should not simply be accepted at face value”

    I believe they are calling them liars. The intelligence agencies have lost any credibility in Congress that they may have once had.

  13. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Effective at what, exactly, would be a good question.

    These programs are only partly, sometime tangentially, about finding terrorists or preventing terrorism. I suspect their major function is to feed the beast. That is, they help keep certain politicians in power while grossly enriching private contractors, a tried-and-true method since the invention of the bomb.

    There’s also a related function with a much older history, but which came to the fore with the devastating attacks on critics, such as Oppenheimer, of the bomb (and the resulting national bomb culture and bomb economy). That function is to monitor the public in order to track and disrupt networks (and selected individuals) that could demand change that the establishment would find offensive. Such “offenses” might include zealous advocacy of privacy, internet openness and accountability for public officials and corporate criminals.

    Beltway denizens, which include the clusters of defense and “intelligence” contractors in Maryland and northern Virginia (and the lobbyists they lucratively employ), don’t want any Arab Spring erupting east or west of the Pecos any time soon.

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