Insiders: NSA's Communications Surveillance Good Way to Target Terrorists

Sara Sorcher

The National Security Agency's surveillance programs are effective tools for seeking out terrorists, according to 85.5 percent of National Journal's National Security Insiders.

"In the digital age, when every individual's digital trail increases year by year, there is no faster way to draw a picture of a network, or a conspiracy, than by piecing together different data streams," one Insider said. "This capability, in years to come, won't be a nice-to-have; it'll be critical."

Another Insider said that the NSA must have the tools necessary to root out terrorists or another 9/11 becomes not just possible, but certain. "If we eliminate the online- and phone-surveillance programs and a dirty bomb explodes in an American city, we have only ourselves to blame," the Insider said. "The days of gentlemen not reading other gentlemen's mail are over."

Some Insiders note that individual identities and habits are already tracked intensely in the commercial sphere.

"I have been fingerprinted at Disneyland and Universal Studios," one said. "When you board a plane in the U.K., your picture is taken before you get on. When you cross a border into the U.S., video is taken of your license plate. Cruise ships require photo IDs be made. Amazon and Google have consumer avatars created for customers and users. Financial institutions routinely collect and track data on customers. When we drive over sensors on a road they collect metadata to establish patterns to improve flow and safety. Whatever NSA may be doing pales in scale to what is happening in plain view."

Even backers of government surveillance have some reservations about it, though.

"The real question is whether a somewhat better counterterror program is worth the price in civil liberties," one Insider said. "This program has reasonably strong oversight, but I'm skeptical all the same."

"They are ONE reasonably good way to target some of the less sophisticated terrorist activities, but by no means an end-all," another said. "Whether it's cost effective is another matter."

A 14.5 percent minority opposes the programs. "It is like adding hay to the stack allowing us to miss the needles, at the sacrifice of freedom," one Insider said. "As a constitutional lawyer, President Obama should know better, and I say that as a Democrat."

"The coverage is way too broad; gather a ton, find a mouse seems to be the approach."

Two-thirds of Insiders agreed with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who said the leaks of the NSA's online surveillance would damage U.S. intelligence-gathering capabilities. "Through the revelations, foreign terrorists will learn more about U.S. intelligence tactics, techniques, and procedures that are used to pursue and identify them," one Insider said. "This will spur and aid terrorists to employ more countermeasures, such as increasing the use of anonymizing techniques and encryption in their communications."  Still, these Insiders disagreed on the severity of lasting damage stemming from the leaks. "I understand why Clapper said what he did," one Insider said. "However the program will continue on. And our enemies will continue to use phone lines."

However, one-third of Insiders did not believe Clapper's warnings. "Everyone assumed this was going on, including the terrorists," one Insider said. "Many extremists—as well as ordinary citizens—would be more surprised if it were revealed that the NSA were NOT engaging in significant online surveillance."

1. Are the NSA's online and phone surveillance programs a good way to target terrorists?

(56 votes)

  • Yes 85.5%
  • No 14.5%


"The current programs have done a good job balancing privacy concerns with the need to detect emerging terrorist threats."

"Used by two very different Presidents.… 'nuff said."

"It would be prohibitively expensive if not impossible to obtain comparable targeting data through other means, such as recruiting foreign spies. Without such tip-offs, targeting most terrorists would be as hard as finding a needle in a haystack. Moreover, polls show that if the purpose of Internet surveillance is counterterrorism, Americans support the kind of activities that media reports say NSA undertakes."

"They're not exactly a good way to TARGET terrorists, but they provide important links to identifying candidates. These are the dots that we mean when we say 'connect the dots.'"

"They are a piece of the puzzle. There is no magic bullet in this business."

"The question is how to avoid eavesdropping on Americans. If NSA is not identifying people, how can it know who is not an American. And if can identify them, what does it do about Americans?"

"The NSA's surveillance programs have stopped terrorist plots and saved lives. I second House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rogers' call to declassify some of these successes so the American people can see the attacks on our homeland that the programs have prevented."

"But the real question is whether a somewhat better counterterror program is worth the price in civil liberties. This program has reasonably strong oversight, but I'm skeptical all the same."

"They are ONE reasonably good way to target some of the less sophisticated terrorist activities, but by no means an end all. Whether it's cost effective is another matter."

"A necessary evil."

"Yes, given the state of data mining technology today. Of course, more precise targeting of terrorists is always more desirable and more efficient. Efforts should be made to further refine data mining and associated technologies in order to assuage legitimate privacy concerns."

"A good tool, but just one of many required. They are not, in and of themselves, sufficient. But now their efficacy has been compromised."

"We live in an age of Lonewolf and small cells. This is really the only effective way of attempting to track them and their activities."


"The coverage is way too broad; gather a ton, find a mouse seems to be the approach."

"No, but they are an excellent way to target everyone else!"

"Online and Phone surveillance is but one of many methods to detect activity that may be connected to terrorists. It is necessary but not foolproof."

"The phone program relies on an unconstitutional general warrant. That's bad, and the court that issued has shown Moynihan to have been right when he said secrecy is for losers."

2. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said the leaks of NSA online surveillance would greatly damage U.S. intelligence capabilities. Do you believe that?

(56 votes)

  • Yes 64%
  • No 36%


"Yes. A thousand times yes. Not many people are, however, in a position to answer this question well. Snowden, for example, was an administrator whose job was to fix computer systems, not to analyze the value or legality of their content. He wasn't trained for that. Why did he believe he could? Why do any Americans believe he was right to do so—especially without ever trying to "blow the whistle" through the legal channels for doing so? The Congress was and is overseeing these programs. Healthy democracies generally ask elected representatives to judge for them, not lone wolves."

"Not only is the effectiveness of this program diminished, but it ... shows that the intel community can't keep a secret. That hurts our credibility with others."

"Revealing sources and methods causes our adversaries to adapt. I am sure that process is in progress."

"As Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Feinstein said, these leaks are an act of treason and should be prosecuted as such."

"Of course it will. Alerts our enemies, punishes American companies who were obeying the law and teaches EVERYONE that America cannot keep secrets."

"If having the data helps catch terrorists, alerting terrorists so that they can avoid providing that data limits that assistance (and after the great effort to build the system)."

"The program dubbed 'Prism' includes a unique capability that others (China and Russia for starters) will try to emulate. The sheer scope of the data gathered within Prism will be hard to replicate. If the U.S. intelligence community is no longer allowed to collect such data it will not only set back intelligence collection efforts, but weaken the nation's cyberdefenses."

"The most sophisticated and dangerous threats will now use methods that will make the NSA's job more difficult. The low-level operatives will remain easy pickings."


"Many extremists—as well as ordinary citizens—would be more surprised if it were revealed that the NSA were NOT engaging in significant online surveillance."

"It's very difficult to take the Clapper statement seriously when it is clear that the Verizon order targeted only the domestic communications of U.S. customers."

"Any loss of collection is potentially damaging, but intelligence community officials routinely claim more damage than actually occurs."

"U.S. intelligence capabilities must be really bad if this does great damage. Clapper et al are working hard to use terrorism to justify intelligence policies designed with the Soviets in mind, which can't work much longer."

"The details of the process can cause damage. The existence of the program would have long been assumed to be true by nearly anyone guilty enough to be caught by them. Leaking that information does not produce 'great damage.' What does threaten security is the belief that leaking is a good thing and that security oaths should be taken lightly. That is a more insidious threat than the contents of these leaks."


National Journal's National Security Insiders Poll is a periodic survey of 100 defense and foreign policy experts. They include: Gordon Adams, Charles Allen, Thad Allen, James Bamford, David Barno, Milt Bearden, Peter Bergen, Samuel "Sandy" Berger, David Berteau, Stephen Biddle, Nancy Birdsall, Marion Blakey, Kit Bond, Stuart Bowen, Paula Broadwell, Mike Breen, Mark Brunner, Steven Bucci, Nicholas Burns, Dan Byman, James Jay Carafano, Phillip Carter, Wendy Chamberlin, Michael Chertoff, Frank Cilluffo, James Clad, Richard Clarke, Steve Clemons, Joseph Collins, William Courtney, Lorne Craner, Roger Cressey, Gregory Dahlberg, Robert Danin, Richard Danzig, Daniel Drezner, Mackenzie Eaglen, Paul Eaton, Andrew Exum, William Fallon, Eric Farnsworth, Jacques Gansler, Stephen Ganyard, Daniel Goure, Mark Green, Mike Green, Mark Gunzinger, John Hamre, Jim Harper, Michael Hayden, Michael Herson, Pete Hoekstra, Bruce Hoffman, Linda Hudson, Paul Hughes, Colin Kahl, Donald Kerrick, Rachel Kleinfeld, Lawrence Korb, David Kramer, Andrew Krepinevich, Charlie Kupchan, W. Patrick Lang, Cedric Leighton, James Lindsay, Justin Logan, Trent Lott, Peter Mansoor, Ronald Marks, Brian McCaffrey, Steven Metz, Franklin Miller, Philip Mudd, John Nagl, Shuja Nawaz, Kevin Nealer, Michael Oates, Thomas Pickering, Paul Pillar, Stephen Rademaker, Marc Raimondi, Celina Realuyo, Bruce Riedel, Barry Rhoads, Marc Rotenberg, Frank Ruggiero, Kori Schake, Mark Schneider, John Scofield, Tammy Schultz, Stephen Sestanovich, Sarah Sewall, Matthew Sherman, Jennifer Sims, Constanze Stelzenmüller, Frances Townsend, Mick Trainor, Suzanne Spaulding, Ted Stroup, Richard Wilhelm, Tamara Wittes, Dov Zakheim, and Juan Zarate.