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How the NSA may have broken the law

In an attempt to quell concerns about the government's secret surveillance programs, intelligence agencies released documents describing the scope their scope on Wednesday. They reveal that the National Security Agency collected tens of thousands of emails unintentionally.

By Mark HosenballReuters, Tabassum ZakariaReuters / August 21, 2013

This June file photo shows the sign outside the National Security Agency (NSA) campus in Fort Meade, Md. NSA released documents on Wednesday revealing how it inadvertently collected communications by some Americans annually over three years.

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File



The National Security Agency may have unintentionally collected as many as 56,000 emails of Americans per year between 2008 and 2011 in a program that a secret U.S. court subsequently said may have violated U.S. law and the Constitution, according to documents released on Wednesday.

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The once-classified documents were released by U.S. intelligence agencies as part of an unprecedented White House effort to smooth the uproar following revelations by former contractor Edward Snowden about the extent of secret government surveillance programs.

U.S. officials say the documents show that intelligence collection programs that inadvertently intrude on Americans' privacy are found and fixed.

But they also appear to raise new questions about operations by the eavesdropping National Security Agency and its oversight by the secret U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC).

"The court is troubled that the government's revelations regarding the NSA's acquisition of Internet transactions mark the third instance in less than three years in which the government has disclosed a substantial misrepresentation regarding the scope of a major collection program," Judge John Bates of the surveillance court wrote in one of the declassified documents.

More specifically, Bates said in an October 2011 ruling that the court had concluded that the process that resulted in improper collections of the tens of thousands of emails was "in some respects, deficient on statutory and constitutional grounds."

The newly declassified documents can be found at

'Not an egregious overreaching'

The emails in question represent only a small slice of the electronic communications scooped up around the world by the NSA. It targets about 250 million email communications for collection each year and, under a separate program, has captured and kept records of millions of phone calls by Americans.

According to the documents, only about 9 percent of the emails - or less than 25 million - are collected from "upstream" sources, which officials familiar with intelligence operations said are cable links belonging to telecommunications companies.

The rest are acquired by the NSA from Internet service providers at the point where they are sent or received. The roughly 56,000 annual emails in question were from "upstream" sources.

Intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, defended their practices.

"This is not an egregious overreaching by a greedy agency seeking to spy on Americans. This is a technological problem that resulted in an inadvertent collection of a relatively small number of U.S. person communications," a senior intelligence official told reporters.

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