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NSA Violated Surveillance Rules Thousands Of Times, Audit Finds

Agency overstepped its legal authority by breaking privacy rules on multiple occasions
 
 
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Photo Credit: U.S. Government/Wikimedia Commons

 

The Washington Post has revealed 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 NSA audit from May 2012 leaked by Edward Snowden, there were 2,776 incidents in the preceding 12 months of unauthorized collection, storage, access to or distribution of legally protected communications. In one case, the NSA intercepted 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. The audit only counted violations committed at the NSA’s Fort Meade headquarters and other facilities in the Washington area. We speak to Alex Abdo of the American Civil Liberties Union.

TRANSCRIPT

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The Washington Post has revealed 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 NSA audit from May 2012 leaked by Edward Snowden, there were 2,776 incidents in the preceding 12 months of unauthorized collection, storage, access to or distribution of legally protected communications. The audit only counted violations committed at the NSA’s Fort Meade headquarters and other facilities in the Washington area.

Most of the infractions involve unauthorized surveillance of Americans or foreign intelligence targets in the United States. In one case, the NSA intercepted a, quote, "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.

The report comes out less than a week after President Obama told reporters abuses have not been committed at the NSA.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If you look at the reports, even the disclosures that Mr. Snowden has put forward, all the stories that have been written, what you’re not reading about is the government actually abusing these programs and, you know, listening in on people’s phone calls or inappropriately reading people’s emails. What you’re hearing about is the prospect that these could be abused. Now, part of the reason they’re not abused is because these checks are in place, and those abuses would be against the law and would be against the orders of the FISC.

 

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Well, meanwhile, The Washington Post has also published a rare public comment from the chief judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton. He said the court lacks the tools to independently verify how often government surveillance breaks rules that protect Americans’ privacy. The NSA responded in a statement that read in part, quote, "We’re a human-run agency operating in a complex environment with a number of different regulatory regimes, so at times we find ourselves on the wrong side of the line."

For more, we’re joined by Alex Abdo, staff attorney at the National Security Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.

The response of the NSA?

ALEX ABDO: It’s truly shocking that the NSA is violating these surveillance laws thousands of times every year—effectively, about seven times a day—in part because these laws are extraordinarily permissive. These aren’t laws that impose meaningful constrictions on the NSA. They essentially allow the NSA to collect vast quantities of information about Americans’ communications inside the United States and as we communicate internationally. So the fact that they’re violating these very permissive laws is truly shocking.

But I think, even more fundamentally, the disclosures really undermine the intelligence community’s primary defense of these programs, which is that they are heavily regulated and overseen. We now know that that’s simply not true. Congress has not been able to effectively oversee the NSA’s surveillance machinery. Now we know that the FISA court, the secret court that’s charged with overseeing the NSA, is not able to and, in its own words, doesn’t think it has the capacity to effectively oversee the NSA. So, for all of these years, the government has been claiming this is a regulated surveillance complex, and in fact the fox has been guarding the hen house for far too long, and it needs to stop.

 
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