Sensenbrenner: Data Mining Missed Red Flags in Boston Bombing

Congressman says sometimes too much data leads to faulty intelligence.

(Elise Amendola/AP)

But those who defend the NSA and FBI's use of the Patriot Act say that the data collection operation has thwarted numerous terrorist attacks.

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Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., the author of the Patriot Act, says he thinks NSA's dragnet data mining may have obscured clues that Boston Bombing suspects Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were planning to carry out a deadly attack.

"It didn't stop the Boston Marathon Massacre. Sometimes too much information means that what you are looking for is actually a very small needle in a very large hay stack," Sensenbrenner told U.S. News. "You can be drowned in too much information."

The federal law enforcement agencies collecting the data have already attracted the ire of Congress for how they handled Russian intelligence tips that Tamerlan Tsarnaev posed a security risk.

[READ: Congress Enacted the NSA Laws, But Will They Change Them Now?]

Before a 2011 trip to Chechnya and Dagestan, a region from which Tamerlan sought asylum in the U.S., the Russians sent a notice to the FBI that the eldest Tsarnaev brother might have ties to radical groups in the region.

The FBI looked into it and said nothing suspicious materialized after an initial investigation. The FBI looked for things like "derogatory telephone communications, possible use of online sites associated with the promotion of radical activity and associations with other persons of interest," the FBI said on its website. After that, the FBI did not continue looking at Tamerlan Tsarnaev because the Russian government did not respond to requests for more information and because, an FBI source told the New York Times in April, the agency didn't have legal grounds to continue keeping track of Tamerlan.

According to reports by the Guardian newspaper and the Washington Post, however, the FBI and NSA were collecting droves of electronic information from people outside the United States. That included tracking email communications and social media under a court order approved by a secret FISA court.

 

The FBI declined to comment on whether Tsarnaev was being tracked while he was overseas under the so-called PRISM program run by the NSA.

Sensenbrenner, who sharply criticizes the way a secret court has broadly interpreted the Patriot Act, warned that if the Obama Administration wants to see the law reauthorized in 2015, especially the business records section, which the administration argues gives it the right to collect millions of Verizon customers' phone records, "they better clean up their act."

In 2001, when the Patriot Act was drafted, Sensenbrenner said he promised his colleagues that the law would not expose Americans to unfounded scrutiny. Now, he says the NSA, the FBI and the FISA court have undermined the intention of the law.

"It is a violation of the Fourth Amendment," Sensenbrenner says.

[ALSO: U.S. Could Face More Attacks Like Boston, Report on Digital Terror Suggests]

Others who defend the NSA and FBI's use of the Patriot Act, however, have said that operation has thwarted numerous terrorist attacks.

"Within the last few years, this program was used to stop a terrorist attack in the United States. We know that. It's important. It fills in a little seam that we have," said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

And the American public may be comfortable with the data collection.

A Pew Research Center poll found that 56 percent of Americans said they supported the NSA collecting phone data because they felt that it made the country safer. More than 60 percent of Americans said they put catching terrorists above protecting privacy.

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