The revelation that the National Security Agency has been secretly amassing data on countless law-abiding American citizens has aroused great concern about the potential threat such an effort poses to liberty. While the program’s defenders assure us that the power the data provide has not been used improperly by those who possess it, one would have to be completely innocent of any knowledge of history or human nature not to predict with absolute certainty that it eventually will be.
That this is so goes far toward explaining why those in charge of the NSA metadata-collection program chose to deceive the American people about its very existence, and why they are so upset that they now must defend their activities in the open court of public opinion. We are doing this for your own good, they are saying, and you have neither the need nor the right to know about it. If you wish to be safe, you just have to accept that some of your freedoms, such as those enshrined in the Fourth Amendment, will have to go.
This argument about the purported need to sacrifice liberty for safety has been rebutted by many capable writers from the time Dr. Franklin delivered his famous riposte — “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety” — down to the present scandal. For the record, I am strongly with those asserting the priority of freedom.
In this article, however, I wish to advance a different argument against PRISM and related NSA domestic-spying programs: that, far from increasing our safety at the cost of some liberty, they are actually harming our safety, so much so that thousands of Americans may have already died as a result.
The issue comes down to this: The NSA metadata-collection program costs lots of money, and had funds not been expended on it, they could have been used to support other programs that might have been far more effective in saving American lives. If we are to assess the rationality of government expenditures to protect the lives of Americans through massive domestic surveillance, we need to compare this program to others aimed at saving American lives.
In the 1990s John D. Graham and his colleagues at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis examined precisely this question as it applied to several hundred other government programs. I have simplified the results somewhat for the present purpose, but basically the Harvard researchers found that the median cost for life-saving expenditures and regulations by the U.S. government in the fields of health care, housing, transportation, and workplace safety ranges from about $0.8 million to $2.7 million spent per life saved. The only marked exception to this pattern occurs in the area of environmental health protection (such as the Superfund program), which costs about $160 million per life saved. The Harvard researchers termed inefficiency of this sort “statistical murder,” since if the funds had been used in a more cost-effective manner, many thousands of additional lives might have been saved.
In fact, in order to avoid such deadly waste, the U.S. Department of Transportation has a policy of rejecting any proposed safety measure expected to cost more than $3 million per life saved. This, therefore, may be taken as a high-end estimate of the value of the life of an American citizen as defined by the U.S. government.
So how much has the metadata spy-on-Americans program cost? Nobody is telling, since, according to the program’s proponents, the people have no right to know how their tax money is being spent. But it’s clearly in the billions. Estimates of the total NSA budget run from about $10 billion per year to “well north” of $20 billion per year, according to former White House budget official Gordon Adams.
The NSA has requested $2 billion to build a structure to house PRISM in Utah, and about $1.4 billion has been spent on various smaller “data fusion centers” to support it and related programs. A precursor program, called Trailblazer, was exposed a few years ago by whistleblowers as costing several billion dollars, nearly all of which was allegedly wasted by high-priced Beltway-bandit contractors — that is to say, the same sort of entities that are raking in the cash from the current effort.
Given these clues, it is reasonable to guess that the NSA’s gathering of metadata has cost something on the order of $10 billion to date, and possibly much more. (If the program’s defenders take issue with this estimate, they are invited to provide us with more accurate figures.)
Well, if we use the Department of Transportation’s high-end rate for allowable expenditures — $3 million per life — then $10 billion should save 3,333 lives. Has PRISM provided such a service?
The answer is no. In a recent article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, authors John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart provide an analysis of the only two concrete examples that had been offered at that point by the Obama administration of how PRISM supposedly impaired a terrorist plot. One was the arrest of an American accomplice to the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack, which arrest, however, did nothing to stop the attack. The other was the arrest of three Pakistani-trained Afghan-Americans who were plotting to bomb the New York subway system. However, those arrests were actually enabled by a tip from British intelligence, which got wind of the plot using standard surveillance techniques. The tip was then reinforced by the plotters’ foolish use of stolen credit cards to buy large quantities of explosive supplies.
In short, American security agencies did not succeed in foiling the first plot, and the gathering of metadata on the American public had nothing to do with stopping the second one. The NSA’s director, General Keith Alexander, told a House committee this week that PRISM and other NSA programs have helped stop 50 plots worldwide, including ten in the U.S., but he named no arrests and did not specify, in his public testimony, how much was learned through metadata collection and how much through conventional surveillance programs. Deputy FBI Director Sean Joyce did tell the same House committee of four cases in which PRISM data helped foil a plot or expose a conspirator — but one of the ones he listed was the subway plot. Nor has any other evidence been advanced by anyone to show that metadata gathering was critical in stopping any plots. But what is known is that thousands of Americans died to bankroll this questionable surveillance.
This is not to say that the government should do nothing to reduce the threat of terrorism. Quite the contrary — excellent options are available. For example, if the present administration were to change its policies so as to assist, rather than retard, the development of American liquid fuels, we could slash the Islamist oil profits that are funding the promotion of global jihad as well as the development of weapons of mass destruction for terrorists to employ.
Perhaps those devoted to combatting terrorism might want to direct their efforts there.
— Robert Zubrin is president of Pioneer Energy and the author of Energy Victory. His latest book, Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism, was published last year by Encounter Books.