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A member of the White House review panel on NSA surveillance said he was “absolutely” surprised when he discovered the agency’s lack of evidence that the bulk collection of telephone call records had thwarted any terrorist attacks, said Geoffrey Stone, a University of Chicago law professor, in an interview with NBC News. “The results were very thin.”

While Stone said the mass collection of telephone call records was a “logical program” from the NSA’s perspective, one question the White House panel was seeking to answer was whether it had actually stopped “any [terror attacks] that might have been really big.”

“We found none,” said Stone.

Under the NSA program, first revealed by ex-contractor Edward Snowden, the agency collects en-masse the records of the time and duration of phone calls made by persons inside (and sometimes outside) the United States.

Stone was one of five members of the White House review panel – and the only one without any intelligence community experience – that this week produced a sweeping report recommending that the NSA’s collection of phone call records be terminated to protect Americans’ privacy rights.

The panel made that recommendation after concluding that the program was “not essential in preventing attacks.”

“That was stunning. That was the ballgame,” said one congressional intelligence official, who asked not to be publicly identified. “It flies in the face of everything that they have tossed at us.”

Despite the panel’s conclusions, Stone strongly  rejected the idea they justified Snowden’s actions in leaking the NSA documents about the phone collection. “Suppose someone decides we need gun control and they go out and kill 15  kids and  then a state enacts gun control?” Stone said, using an analogy he acknowledged was “somewhat inflammatory.” What Snowden did, Stone said, was put the country “at risk.”

“My emphatic view,” he said, “is that a person who has access to classified information — the revelation of which could damage national security — should never take it upon himself to reveal that information.”

Stone added, however, that he would not necessarily reject granting an  amnesty to Snowden in exchange for the return of all his documents, as was recently suggested by a top NSA official. “It’s a hostage situation,” said Stone. Deciding whether to negotiate with him to get all his documents back was a “pragmatic judgment. I see no principled reason not to do that.”

The conclusions of the panel’s reports were at direct odds with public statements by President Barack Obama and U.S. intelligence officials. “Lives have been saved,” Obama told reporters last June, referring to the bulk collection program and another program that intercepts communications overseas. “We know of at least 50 threats that have been averted because of this information.”

But in one little-noticed footnote in its report, the White House panel said the telephone records collection program – known as Section 215, based on the provision of the U.S. Patriot Act that provided the legal basis for it – had made “only a modest contribution to the nation’s security.” The report said that “there has been no instance in which NSA could say with confidence that the outcome [of a terror investigation] would have been any different” without the program.

The panel’s findings echoed that of U.S. Judge Richard Leon, who in a ruling this week found the bulk collection program to be unconstitutional. Leon said that government officials were unable to cite “a single instance in which analysis of the NSA’s bulk collection metadata collection actually stopped an imminent attack, or otherwise aided the Government in achieving any objective that was time-sensitive in nature.”

Stone declined to comment on the accuracy of public statements by U.S. intelligence officials about the telephone collection program, but said that when they referred to successes they seemed to be mixing the results of domestic metadata collection with the intelligence derived from the separate, and less controversial, NSA program, known as 702, to intercept communications overseas.

The comparison between 702 overseas interceptions and 215 bulk metadata collection was “night and day,” said Stone. “With 702, the record is very impressive. It’s no doubt the nation is safer and spared potential attacks because of 702. There was nothing like that for 215. We asked the question and they [the NSA] gave us the data. They were very straight about it.”

He also said one reason the telephone records program is not effective is because, contrary to the claims of critics, it actually does not collect a record of every American’s phone call. Although the NSA does collect metadata from major telecommunications carriers such as Verizon and AT&T, there are many smaller carriers from which it collects nothing. Asked if the NSA was collecting the records of 75 percent of phone calls, an estimate that has been used in briefings to Congress , Stone said the real number was classified but “not anything close to that” and far lower.

When panel members asked NSA officials why they didn’t expand the program to include smaller carriers, the answer they gave was “money,” Stone said. “They were setting financial priorities,” said Stone, and that was “really revealing” about how useful the bulk collection of telephone calls really was.

An NSA spokeswoman declined to comment on any aspect of the panel’s report, saying the agency was deferring to the White House. Asked Wednesday about the surveillance panel’s conclusions about telephone record collection, White House press secretary Jay Carney said that “the president does still believe and knows that this program is an important piece of the overall efforts that we engage in to combat threats against the lives of American citizens and threats to our overall national security.”

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A fine example of investigative journalism in the East Bay Express reviews internal communications and other public records from city staffers and Oakland PD bureaucrats discussing the Domain Awareness Center, a citywide surveillance hub that’s currently under construction in Oakland. Oakland is a city with a decades-long problem with gang violence and street violence, and the DAC is being touted as the solution to this serious problem.

Internal documents tell another story. Though the City of Oakland’s public-facing DAC message is all about crime fighting and anti-terror surveillance, the internal message is very different. City bureaucrats and law enforcement are excited about DAC because it will help them fight protests. Analysis of the internal documents found almost no mentions of “crime,” “rape,” “killings” — but city officials frequently and at length discussed the way the DAC could be used to thwart street protests, future Occupy movements, and trade union activity including strikes:

Other records echo this political mission. In meeting minutes from a January 2012 meeting of the San Francisco Maritime Exchange’s Northern California Maritime Area Security Committee, Domingo and Mike O’Brien, director of security for the Port of Oakland, described the DAC system as a tool that would help control labor strikes and community protests that threaten to slow business at the port. Following security reports from the US Border Patrol and the FBI, Domingo told the committee that Oakland law enforcement was “hoping that things would quiet down with the Occupy movement in the new year,” according to the official minutes. Domingo thanked the Maritime Exchange for its support of Oakland’s port security grant projects, which includes the DAC.

O’Brien went further, explaining that the port’s Emergency Operations Center (which now feeds into the DAC) “made use of seventy new security cameras” to track the protesters, and added that the system will ensure that “future actions [do] not scare labor away.”

Dan Siegel, a longtime civil and workers’ rights attorney in Oakland, said the city staffers’ focus on political unrest, even at the port, is disturbing. “There’s a huge difference in protecting the port from potential acts of terrorism than from spying on port workers and others who may have political or economic conflicts with port management and the companies that operate the terminals,” said Siegel. “What we see taking place is a complete blurring of that line where port security now includes tracking Occupy, longshore workers, and now recently the Port Truckers Association.”

During construction of the first phase of the DAC, from roughly August 2012 to October 2013, city staffers repeatedly referred to political protests as a major reason for building the system. Emails to and from Lieutenant Christopher Shannon, Captain David Downing, and Lieutenant Nishant Joshi of OPD and Ahsan Baig, Oakland’s technical project leader on the DAC, show that OPD staffers were in the surveillance center during the Trayvon Martin protests this year, and that they may have been monitoring marches in Oakland. In the same chain of emails, Shannon asked if the Emergency Operations Center and the DAC control room’s layout had “changed much since May Day,” referring to yet another large political rally in Oakland when the DAC appears to have been used by OPD to monitor demonstrations.

The Real Purpose of Oakland’s Surveillance Center   [Darwin BondGraham and Ali Winston/East Bay Express]