Former CIA director: NSA metadata gathering "hasn't played a significant role in disrupting any attacks"

A congressional hearing on Tuesday saw members of the Senate Judiciary Committee questioning the White House-appointed NSA review board over the extent of the American National Security Agency's surveillance, and recommendations for reform.

During the hearing, Michael J. Morell, the former acting director of the CIA and a member of the President's Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies, said "It is absolutely true that the 215 program hasn't played a significant role in disrupting any attacks to this point. But it only has to be successful once to be important."

For anyone not paying attention, that means that the largest breach of communications privacy in the history of the world has yet to play a significant role in stopping any terrorist attacks, despite the agency repeatedly citing the 11 September 2001 as justification for their snooping.

The hearing comes as President Obama claims to be in "the final stages" of a review focusing on the practices of the National Security Agency (NSA), according to a White House official.

During the largely underwhelming hearings resulted in Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said that he did not believe the bulk collection of metadata was justifiable based on its effectiveness as a terrorism-prevention tool.

"I've concluded that the phone record program is not uniquely valuable enough to justify a massive intrusion on Americans' privacy," he said.

The hearing wasn't quite of the blown-wide-open variety, though – congress members largely stuck to questioning the review board on surveillance tactics pre-9/11, and debating whether the metadata collection programme could have prevented the World Trade Centre attacks.

While the meeting was ostensibly on the subject of the report produced by the White House panel in December, and the 46 recommendations contained within regarding intelligence collection programs and potential abuses by the NSA, only included a handful of actual committee members.

After posing seemingly endless questions about the metadata programme, the panel recommended a number of changes to the controversial Section 215 and 702 collection programmes.

However, White House officials maintained their "just-in-case" line.

Michael J. Morell, the former acting director of the CIA and a member of the President's Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies, said that the panel did not believe it was necessary to eliminate the metadata program, but had no evidence that it had prevented any terror attacks, either.

"There is quite a bit of content in metadata and when you have the records of the phone calls an individual made, you can learn quite a bit about an individual," he said.

No one is arguing with him there.

President Obama is set to announce his reform of the NSA on Friday.

Image: Flickr (erin m)