NSA Review Panelist: Metadata Surveillance Program Isn’t ‘Life Or Death’

One of President Obama’s panelists hand-picked to review the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs said on Thursday that the spy agency’s most controversial surveillance program wasn’t an “essential” tool.

“It’s not life or death. Well, let me put it a different way — it’s not essential,” said Geoffrey Stone, a University of Chicago law professor, about the program that has collected vast amounts of Americans’ phone data, including from text messages. Stone made his comments at a discussion hosted by Public Citizen, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group that promotes government accountability.

Stone said the program has “not produced dramatic results.” There were a “few instances where it was useful, but no instances where information from the [telephony data] was essential for stopping terrorist attack,” he said. That same point was found in a recent study from the New America Foundation which said the program has a negligible benefit to preventing terrorism.

But Stone contended that despite that lack of past success, the program was necessary. “Nothing would do greater harm to civil liberties than another 9/11,” he said. “If this works [to prevent an attack] once in a decade,” it’s important, he continued.


During the open forum, Stone for the most part avoided controversy but weighed in on two contentious points. Stone defended Director of National Intelligence James Clapper for misleading Congress last year about the NSA’s data collection and that Edward Snowden’s revelations damaged national security more than it helped the public.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) knew exactly what he was doing when he asked Clapper whether or not the NSA collects data on millions of Americans, Stone said. Wyden knew that information was classified — not to be released to the public — and Clapper’s only response could have been “yes” or “I can’t answer that.”

“Clapper was put in an impossible position,” Stone said. “Lying was the best answer.”

The esteemed law professor said while serving on the review board he went from having a “high degree of skepticism” to having great respect for the NSA, its work and employees. But Snowden has put the U.S. at risk by disclosing thousands of classified documents.

“There were benefits that flowed from what he did,” namely the opportunity to reform some of the NSA’s programs, Stone said. “But there have been, in fact, [instances] where Snowden’s revelations have seriously impaired the government’s ability to to protect national security.” The metadata collection program, authorized under section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, was far less successful than the other programs, he said, such as the those that collect data from foreign citizens overseas.


When pressed about Snowden’s less-than-viable alternative to go through the chain of command rather than the media, Stone said that way “might not have done anything,” but that wasn’t Snowden’s choice to make on behalf of all Americans. “I don’t want the individual government employee to make the judgment for themselves [of what’s best] for the U.S.,” Stone said. “I just don’t trust that.”

Stone and the other four members of the NSA review panel unanimously agreed on all 46 of its recommendations to Obama. Chief among them was keeping the NSA telephone surveillance program intact but barring the government from storing the data, a proposal that the former deputy director of the NSA has seemed to welcome. To prevent abuse, the information should be kept by the phone companies or a private third party, the panel argued.

However, even out of the government’s hands, privacy concerns remain. The Center for American Progress on Thursday called for the entire program to be suspended and that the government get a court order for each phone record it needs. “President Obama has an opportunity to set the right balance between security and privacy in the global information age, but the window is closing,” said CAP Senior Fellow Ken Gude said in a statement.

Obama is scheduled to address the panel’s recommendations and other potential NSA reforms in a speech at the Department of Justice on Friday. This will be his second such speech, following August’s announcement of the panel’s formation. Early reports indicate that while Obama will accept some of the review panel’s suggestions, many others will fall by the wayside.