The NSA Broke Privacy Rules Thousands of Times. Per Year.

According to internal audits and top-secret documents, the National Security Agency has violated privacy rules thousands of times each year since 2008, when Congress granted the agency increased powers. The documents were provided to the Washington Post earlier this summer by Edward Snowden.

The NSA audit obtained by the Post included 2,776 incidents of “unauthorized collection, storage, access to or distribution of legally protected communications” between May 2011 and May 2012. According to a NSA official who spoke to the Post, that number "looks a little different" when compared to the total number of NSA operations.

“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,” a senior NSA official said in an interview, speaking with White House permission on the condition of anonymity.

“You can look at it as a percentage of our total activity that occurs each day,” he said. “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.”

But that 2012 audit only included incidents from the NSA's headquarters in Fort Meade and other Washington-area locations. Three government officials who spoke to the Post said that the number would be significantly higher if all NSA operating units and regional centers were included.

The Post notes that most of the violations appeared to be unintentional, with one in 10 of the errors attributed to typographical errors that led to the accidental collection of information about U.S. citizens' phone calls or emails. One of the more serious rule violations covered in the audit involved the unauthorized use of information from approximately 3,000 Americans and green-card holders

From the Post:

... a single “incident” in February 2012 involved the unlawful retention of 3,032 files that the surveillance court had ordered the NSA to destroy, according to the May 2012 audit. Each file contained an undisclosed number of telephone call records.

One of the documents sheds new light on a statement by NSA Director Keith B. Alexander last year that “we don’t hold data on U.S. citizens.”

Another of the documents – a “quality assurance” review that wasn't distributed to the NSA's oversight staff – included information about a 2008 incident, when a “large number” of calls from Washington were intercepted because a programming error confused the Washington area code (202) with Egypt's international dialing code (20).

But at least the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the secret court established to oversee the United States's spying programs, is aware of these problems and has full access to such audits and documents, right? Not quite.

In its second major scoop Thursday night, the Washington Post published a statement from the FISC's chief judge, U.S. District Reggie Walton, in which Walton admitted the FISC's ability to oversee surveillance programs is limited.

“The FISC is forced to rely upon the accuracy of the information that is provided to the Court,” Walton said in the written statement. “The FISC does not have the capacity to investigate issues of noncompliance, and in that respect the FISC is in the same position as any other court when it comes to enforcing [government] compliance with its orders."

That account differs somewhat from President Obama's, which he gave during a news conference in June in the wake of Snowden's first round of leaks.

“We also have federal judges that we’ve put in place who are not subject to political pressure,” Obama said. “They’ve got lifetime tenure as federal judges, and they’re empowered to look over our shoulder at the executive branch to make sure that these programs aren’t being abused.”

And just last Friday, Obama addressed the Edward Snowden leaks and the role of the FISC:

And 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 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.

[Image of NSA head General Keith Alexander via AP]

To contact the author of this post, email taylor@gawker.com