Most of the thousands of infractions each year since Congress granted the agency broad new powers in 2008 involve unauthorized surveillance of Americans or foreign intelligence targets in the United States, both of which are restricted by statute and executive order.
The violations were recorded in top-secret documents, including an NSA internal audit, provided to The Washington Post this summer by former agency contractor Edward Snowden. Snowden, who is wanted by the U.S. government on espionage charges for leaking classified material, was granted temporary asylum in Russia this month.
“Press reports that the National Security Agency broke privacy rules thousands of times per year and reportedly sought to shield required disclosure of privacy violations are extremely disturbing,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said. She said Congress should take steps to ensure that such incidents are not repeated.
Two leading critics of the surveillance programs said Friday that the administration has long underplayed the programs’ impact on privacy. “We believe Americans should know” that the report of violations “is just the tip of a larger iceberg,” Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) said in a statement.
They also said they “appreciate the candor” of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court chief judge “regarding the court’s inability” to independently verify statements made by the executive branch. The senators are among a number of lawmakers who have sponsored legislation that would limit the scope of the NSA’s surveillance and require stronger oversight.
The White House said in a statement Friday that the “NSA documents being reported on today . . . demonstrate that the NSA is monitoring, detecting, addressing and reporting compliance incidents. “
In a conference call with reporters Friday, NSA Compliance Director John DeLong repeatedly said that the agency takes compliance seriously and that the audit’s existence proved that. “People need to understand there’s no willful violations here,” he said. The mistakes are in the “parts-per-million or parts-per-billion range,” he said. “We really do look for them, detect them and correct them.”
Added DeLong: “No one at NSA, not me or anyone else, thinks they are okay.”
When pressed, he said there have been willful violations, but the number is “minuscule . . . a couple over the past decade.”
He also said the agency makes 20 million queries a month of its databases.