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NSA documents show privacy laws broken “thousands of times per year”

NSA documents show privacy laws broken “thousands of times per year”

The Washington Post released a detailed report last night, stating that the NSA broke privacy rules thousands of times per year.  The report is based on documents shared earlier with the outlet by NSA leaker Edward Snowden, and it presents a clearer picture of precisely how US citizens can become inadvertently ensnared in the NSA’s dragnet.

Many of the examples are detailed in an internal report on breaches of NSA privacy rules and legal restrictions that was conducted by the director of oversight and compliance for the NSA’s Signals Intelligence Directorate.  It covers instances of privacy violations that occurred only out of Ft. Meade headquarters and nearby facilities, rather than all of the NSA facilities.  When asked to provide statistics on the NSA operations as a whole, a senior intelligence official would tell the Post only that the number of violations would “not double.”

The violations outlined in the documents range from the purely accidental, if not outright careless, to the failure to report a new collection method.

From the Washington Post article:

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.


The NSA audit obtained by The Post, dated May 2012, counted 2,776 incidents in the preceding 12 months of unauthorized collection, storage, access to or distribution of legally protected communications. Most 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.

Additional documents referenced in the Post’s report all provide insight into the training of NSA personnel on identifying and handling such violations.

As various NSA and Justice Department officials have testified before members of Congress, NSA personnel are required to fill out a form that provides the rationale for further targeting someone for surveillance.  One such document in the Post report provides a visual example of this process.

Analysts are specifically warned that they “MUST NOT” provide the evidence on which they base their “reasonable articulable suspicion” that a target will produce valid foreign intelligence. They are also forbidden to disclose the “selectors,” or search terms, they plan to use. In examples that draw on actual searches, the document shows how to strip out details and substitute generic descriptions.

A senior intelligence official said in an interview that this form provides only the “headline” and that the document should not be misread to suggest that the NSA is hiding anything from its outside auditors. Particulars are available on request, the official said, by supervisors at the Justice Department and the office of the Director of National Intelligence, and those offices often delve deeply into the details. The official acknowledged that the details are not included in reports to Congress or the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Another training document outlines what personnel should do if they’ve incidentally encountered information containing that of US persons, indicating that minimization procedures are to be applied.  The document also specifies that intentional targeting and inadvertent collection of data pertaining to US persons warrants that all collection cease immediately.

Collectively, all of the information contained in the Post’s report appears to provide the most clarification to date on what NSA personnel may encounter while searching on foreign intelligence targets and how they are trained to respond when their activities inadvertently yield data that encompasses US citizens.

In response its report, The Washington Post had initially obtained quotes from an NSA official on the matter.  But in its typical transparent fashion, it appears the Obama administration wouldn’t have that.

From WaPo’s post titled NSA statements to The Post:

The Obama administration referred all questions for this article to John DeLong, the NSA’s director of compliance, who answered questions freely in a 90-minute interview. DeLong and members of the NSA communications staff said he could be quoted “by name and title” on some of his answers after an unspecified internal review. The Post said it would not permit the editing of quotes. Two days later, White House and NSA spokesmen said that none of DeLong’s comments could be quoted on the record and sent instead a prepared statement in his name. The Post declines to accept the substitute language as quotations from DeLong. The statement is below.

We want people to report if they have made a mistake or even if they believe that an NSA activity is not consistent with the rules. NSA, like other regulated organizations, also has a “hotline” for people to report — and no adverse action or reprisal can be taken for the simple act of reporting. We take each report seriously, investigate the matter, address the issue, constantly look for trends, and address them as well — all as a part of NSA’s internal oversight and compliance efforts. What’s more, we keep our overseers informed through both immediate reporting and periodic reporting. Our internal privacy compliance program has more than 300 personnel assigned to it: a fourfold increase since 2009. They manage NSA’s rules, train personnel, develop and implement technical safeguards, and set up systems to continually monitor and guide NSA’s activities. We take this work very seriously.

You can access all of the documents from the Washington Post’s related posts below.



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Henry Hawkins | August 16, 2013 at 1:44 pm

This is all bullshit. James Clapper said so, denied it under oath in a congressional hearing. If he had lied about spying on Americans, he’d be brought up on perjury charges.

    Estragon in reply to Henry Hawkins. | August 16, 2013 at 5:48 pm

    Clapper testified truthfully and fully in executive session.

    Ron Wyden knew he could not legally repeat that testimony in public, so he laid a trap. He forced Clapper to lie – any demurral would be assumed to be confirmation anyway – and made that the focus, when the real scandal was Wyden revealing the information against his own oath.

    The evil traitor in this situation isn’t Clapper, who did what he felt he had to do to keep the official secrets and his oath of office. How can you claim he “lied to Congress” when he had told them the whole truth not two hours earlier, but legally, in closed session?

    Wyden is the rat here.

Wait till you see what info the NSA wants next.
(start at 4:30)

With all the electronics in computing these days, there’s more access to the world, than you have cars in your driveway. Where you can use public roads to go anywhere you want.

I’m not so sure it’s a “driving force” for individuals to lock up what they’re saying … since Tweeting and Fess-booking are on par with standing on a soapbox in a public square and shouting out “toots” … Or tweets.

And, before our government began “collecting.” Each and every server “collected.” Used data mining. And, SOLD the information they obtained. It’s the junk mail of today.

While real junk mail is no longer profitable to send; so junk mail isn’t really flooding in like it use’ta.

What people can grasp is that “selling information about you” just brings in a flood of unwanted sales pitches. And, what not. That’s the “privacy issue.”

You know, first came cars. They rode on dirt roads. Then, came improvements. Rubber tires. And, roads. Where cities and local places took over maintaining them.

When Eisenhower was president he put together the FREEWAYS … where you can get on and off roads without paying tolls. And, you can get off to buy food and gas; because entrepreneurs discovered this out-of-the-way places were profitable.

Basically, the government asked for and got “a back door” into all the data mining being done by computer and phone companies. I’m not sure it’s a bad idea …

Until you come to the secret courts, john roberts set up. Where you can’t even discuss with your lawyer what the hidden charges are.

john roberts is as fault. John roberts failed to grasp the imporantance of our courts being OPEN. Not free to charge in secret.

john roberts is the worst chief justice in this nation’s history. Someday, if we’re lucky, his portrait will hang in the basement of the supreme court, near the hidden one of Taney.

    Sanddog in reply to Carol Herman. | August 17, 2013 at 12:11 am

    There is a huge difference between information collected by a company that you’ve voluntarily entered into a contract with and the government collecting information. One is legal, the other isn’t absent an active investigation.

[…] wisdom, Hillicon Valley, Washington Monthly, Le·gal In·sur·rec· tion,Taylor Marsh, Salon, Hullabaloo, The Switch, The Fix, RIA Novosti, CNN, Crooks and […]

Anyone who works with Big Data knows that it is notoriously inaccurate! Data quality issues certainly make the NSA data base only directionally accurate. I would be shocked if the discrete data was 90% correct.

Nothing says protecting privacy better than invading privacy. This the fed gov, made up of people who don’t care about the public’s rights. They are too stupid to perform the job without mistakes and don’t really care about public safety. Gov employees care about one thing, THEIR OWN JOB SECURITY!!!

Phillep Harding | August 16, 2013 at 3:31 pm

They are trying to blame this on “programming error”? There’s a human in there somewhere, it’s not all computer.

Kudos to WaPo for refusing to use the fake quotes.

But as others have asked, what made Obama’s peeps think WaPo would even consider using their fakes?

This is a great opportunity for the RNC. They need to make the point that if citizens want allegations of government misdeeds investigated by the watchdog media, they need to elect a Republican president.

Rick the Curmudgeon | August 17, 2013 at 1:17 am

NSA documents show privacy laws broken “thousands of times per year”

If they admit to “thousands” then count on it being “billions.”