NSA broke privacy rules. Are latest revelations big, or same-old?

The number of NSA privacy violations tied to surveillance programs – 2,776 in one year – seems big, but there's no context for judging. The revelations, however, appear to contradict Obama's assurances that the NSA acts with care and propriety.

Patrick Semansky/AP
This June 6, 2013 photo shows the sign outside the National Security Agency campus in Fort Meade, Md. The NSA has broken privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times each year since Congress granted the intelligence agency broad new powers in 2008, the Washington Post reports. In one case, telephone calls from Washington were intercepted when the city's area code was confused with the dialing code for Egypt.

National Security Agency eavesdropping has broken privacy rules thousands of times annually in recent years, according to a new Washington Post report.

The violations generally involve interception of the communications of Americans or foreigners located on United States soil. That’s an activity that is subject to tight controls from both presidential executive orders and US law, writes the Post’s Baron Gellman.

Infractions “range from significant violations of law to typographical errors that resulted in unintended interception of US emails and telephone calls,” Mr. Gellman writes.

For instance, in 2008 NSA personnel inadvertently intercepted a large number of phone calls from Washington when a programming error mixed up the D.C. area code, 202, with the international dialing code for Egypt, 20.

In another undated incident, the NSA did not reveal a new method of collecting communications to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a judicial body that oversees some NSA snooping, until it had been in operation for months. The FISA court struck down the new method as unconstitutional.

Overall, the NSA totaled up 2,776 violations of rules or laws from May 2011 to May 2012, according to an internal audit disclosed by the Post. This included unauthorized collections of communications, as well as unauthorized storage and distribution of collected material.

The audit and other material on which the Post story is based came from Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor recently granted temporary asylum in Russia. How important is this latest entry in the now-lengthy string of Snowden revelations?  

On one hand, it’s difficult to judge whether the violations are a few or a lot, given that the context of the total number of NSA actions against which the infractions occur remains classified.

“You can look at it as a percentage of our total activity that occurs each day,” said an NSA official authorized by the White House to speak to the Post. “You look at a number in absolute terms that looks big, and when you look at it in relative terms, it looks a little different.”

On the other hand, Gellman’s story in the Post directly contradicts President Obama’s assertion that the NSA does not overstep its legal bounds.

In remarks on the Snowden revelations at the beginning of a press conference last Friday, Mr. Obama said that despite the uproar in the press “what you’re not reading about is the government actually abusing these programs and listening in on people’s phone calls or inappropriately reading people’s e-mails.”

Now you are reading about just such abuses, write Washington Post Wonkblog writers Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas.

“To be fair to Obama, what the report details isn’t systematic abuse so much as repeated mistakes. But the report is a reminder that we don’t know what we don’t know,” write the Wonkblog authors.

The latest revelations also undercut the White House and intelligence community assertions that extensive oversight from the legislative and judicial branches keeps the NSA honest, according to other critics.

For instance, the Post story notes that Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California had not read the internal NSA audit until the Post itself provided it.

“This is what the vaunted Congressional oversight of NSA spying looks like,” wrote national security analyst Marcy Wheeler on her "Empty Wheels" blog.

In sum, Snowden-provided details now make clear that a special approach to NSA oversight is necessary, writes the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf, who has long charged that the Obama administration has overstepped its bounds with surveillance and drone warfare policies.

“The time is ripe for a new Church Committee, the surveillance oversight effort named for Senator Frank Church, who oversaw a mid-1970s investigation into decades of jaw-dropping abuses by US intelligence agencies,” writes Mr. Friedersdorf.

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