Don’t worry, we’ve been told by President Obama and many members of Congress, the NSA has strict guidelines and procedures to prevent violations of privacy in their surveillance programs. Turns out that some of the documents that Edward Snowden provided to the Washington Post prove otherwise.
The National Security Agency has broken privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times each year since Congress granted the agency broad new powers in 2008, according to an internal audit and other top-secret documents.
Most of the infractions involve unauthorized surveillance of Americans or foreign intelligence targets in the United States, both of which are restricted by statute and executive order. They range from significant violations of law to typographical errors that resulted in unintended interception of U.S. e-mails and telephone calls.
The documents, provided earlier this summer to The Washington Post by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, include a level of detail and analysis that is not routinely shared with Congress or the special court that oversees surveillance. In one of the documents, agency personnel are instructed to remove details and substitute more generic language in reports to the Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
In one instance, the NSA decided that it need not report the unintended surveillance of Americans. A notable example in 2008 was the interception of a “large number” of calls placed from Washington when a programming error confused the U.S. area code 202 for 20, the international dialing code for Egypt, according to a “quality assurance” review that was not distributed to the NSA’s oversight staff.
In another case, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which has authority over some NSA operations, did not learn about a new collection method until it had been in operation for many months. The court ruled it unconstitutional.
None of this is at all surprising. We already know that the FBI has routinely used Patriot Act authority for sneak and peek warrants to go after drug cases more than 90% of the time they are used and that the NSA has ignored the plain meaning of the business records provision. If you give virtually limitless authority to the government, they’ll use it for lots of unintended things. We should have learned that lesson long ago.
We also should know by now that these agencies routinely lie to Congress and, almost certainly, to the FISA court as well. After all, they have no opposition in that court, no one to challenge their claims.