The Obama administration and its allies in Congress and the media have defended the widespread global spying by the NSA on the grounds that it has prevented 54 terrorist attacks, giving the impression that most of them were aimed at the US. This became accepted as a fact, as unchallenged statements by authority figures often do, and one hears it being thrown around by supporters of the authoritarian national security state.
ProPublica has an superb graphic of how a fairly modest claim at the beginning that the “NSA’s programs have contributed to understanding and disrupting 54 terror-related events” became, when watered by a steady stream of exaggerations from multiple parties in the government and the media, the wildly exaggerated and widely transmitted story that as a result of all these sweeping invasions of privacy “54 terrorist plots have been foiled”.
But there’s more. In order to sell it to the US public, they also gave the impression that most, if not all, of these ‘plots’ were aimed at the US but even that was not true. As this ProPublica article points out, NSA director Keith Alexander showed in a slide that 13 of those were supposed to be aimed at the US.
But even that does not hold up. Trying to salvage the idea of a serious threat to the US, Senator Diane Feinstein, one of those serial exaggerators, showed a map with the global distribution of these 54 plots, indicating that 13 were aimed at the US ‘homeland’. Most people in the US would think that the Orwellian term ‘homeland’ refers to the US but observers noted that her map of the ‘homeland’ included both Canada and Mexico.
After looking closely at the evidence and testimony presented by the NSA, senator Patrick Leahy was highly skeptical of these claims.
[Leahy] noted that senior officials had testified that the phone logging effort was critical to thwarting 54 plots, but after reviewing NSA material, he said that assertion cannot be made — “not by any stretch.”
It turns out that the number of plots that were halted may even be zero.
The NSA has previously claimed that 54 terrorist plots had been disrupted “over the lifetime” of the bulk phone records collection and the separate program collecting the internet habits and communications of people believed to be non-Americans. On Wednesday, [NSA Deputy Director John] Inglis said that at most one plot might have been disrupted by the bulk phone records collection alone. “There is an example that comes close to a ‘but for’ example,” Inglis said. [My italics-MS]
The foiling of terrorist plots globally is a good thing. The lives of people in other countries are as important as those of Americans. But the government knows only too well that the only way to sell these programs is by implying that they save the lives of Americans because, after all, we are god’s chosen people and our lives count for much more than those of foreigners.
This is how they will use every trick in the book to win people over and why you must never believe the words of government (and by this I mean Congress as well as the administration) when they are defending dubious practices, unless they provide solid evidence. They will simply and brazenly lie to advance their agenda or to cover their wrongdoing. Will journalists be more skeptical of official claims now? I wish I could be more hopeful.