A new study by the New America Foundation, a centrist Washington think tank, notes that during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in October, Alexander said only one plot was prevented by the phone records collection -- involving a San Diego cabdriver who provided funds to an al-Qaida group in Somalia.
This "plot" didn't amount to much. "The total amount going to a foreign terrorist organization was around $8,500 and the case involved no attack plot anywhere in the world," notes NAF.
Federal judge William Pauley III, however, sees enormous value in the NSA's incessant vacuuming of our phone records. Had this operation been going on before Sept. 11, 2001, he said in a December opinion, the NSA might have known that hijacker Khalid al-Mihdhar was in the country and been able to notify the FBI of his whereabouts. Obama used the same example in his speech Friday.
But the 9/11 Commission report made clear that the CIA had plenty of information that could have led the FBI to al-Mihdhar -- and failed to pass on what it knew to the FBI. If information is not being shared among those pursuing terrorists, accumulating more information is not the answer.
The president is being accused of running up the white flag to al-Qaida for deciding to shift storage of these records to some non-government entity, while forcing NSA to get court approval before it conducts queries of specific phone numbers.
But transferring the records is a very modest step to prevent government abuse. Nor is requiring the FISA court to approve all queries -- as Obama proposes, at least for the time being -- a radical step. In fact, the FISA court imposed a similar requirement on NSA for several months in 2009 in response to the agency's failure to follow the existing rules.
President George W. Bush, who started this program, had the excuse that it might prove to be valuable. Obama has a mass of evidence to the contrary. But that's no reason to stop.