NSA broke privacy laws thousands of times a year

Leaked documents not only show thousands of violations, but that many were hidden from Congress and FISA

By Natasha Lennard
Published August 16, 2013 12:58PM (EDT)

Leaked top-secret government documents, provided by whistle-blower Edward Snowden to the Washington Post, show that the NSA knew itself to be breaking thousands of privacy laws in recent years.

According to an internal agency audit and other leaked documents, the NSA "has broken privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times each year since Congress granted the agency broad new powers in 2008," WaPo reported.

Just in the last 12 months there have been 2,776 incidents of unauthorized collection, storage, access to or distribution of legally protected communications. The audit, it's worth noting, counts only incidents at the NSA’s Fort Meade headquarters and other ­facilities in the Washington area. "Three government officials, speak­ing on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified matters, said the number would be substantially higher if it included other NSA operating units and regional collection centers," noted WaPo. The documents detailed that:

Most [violations] were unintended. Many involved failures of due diligence or violations of standard operating procedure. The most serious incidents included a violation of a court order and unauthorized use of data about more than 3,000 Americans and green-card holders.

Worryingly, too, the documents illustrate how the agency hid many violations from Congress and its overseeing FISA court, preventing possible and necessary oversight:

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.

Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

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