by Justin Elliott and Theodoric Meyer, ProPublica, Oct. 23, 2013, 8:59 a.m.
UPDATE Dec. 17, 2013: In a new ruling that calls the NSA’s phone metadata surveillance likely unconstitutional, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon cited this article in his assessment of the agency’s claims about thwarted terrorist attacks. Read the ruling here.
Two weeks after Edward Snowden’s first revelations about sweeping government surveillance, President Obama shot back. “We know of at least 50 threats that have been averted because of this information not just in the United States, but, in some cases, threats here in Germany,” Obama said during a visit to Berlin in June. “So lives have been saved.”
In the months since, intelligence officials, media outlets, and members of Congress from both parties all repeated versions of the claim that NSA surveillance has stopped more than 50 terrorist attacks. The figure has become a key talking point in the debate around the spying programs.
“Fifty-four times this and the other program stopped and thwarted terrorist attacks both here and in Europe 2014 saving real lives,” Rep. Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, said on the House floor in July, referring to programs authorized by a pair of post-9/11 laws. “This isn’t a game. This is real.”
But there’s no evidence that the oft-cited figure is accurate.