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"NSA broke privacy rules thousands of times per year, audit finds"

Barton Gelman in WaPo:

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 internal audit and other top-secret documents.

Most of the infractions involve unauthorized surveillance of Americans or foreign intelligence targets in the United States, both of which are restricted by law and executive order. They range from significant violations of law to typographical errors* that resulted in unintended interception of U.S. e-mails and telephone calls.

Film at 11.

I'm sure Clapper's committee will take care of all this. After all, the guy's a genius at public relations.

NOTE * So, if I want to game the system, I just have to make a typographical error?

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Bryan's picture
Submitted by Bryan on

Like typing in 'Occupy Wall Street' when it should have been 'Omar bin Hassan'?

Jeff W's picture
Submitted by Jeff W on

The Atlantic’s Wire quotes President Obama from this past Friday’s news conference:

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.

[The Atlantic’s emphasis]

Jeff W's picture
Submitted by Jeff W on

I think this “breaking the rules/typo” frame (whatever the NSA audit says) has the potential for minimizing what might be going on here.

From Gelman’s piece:

In what appears to be one of the most serious violations, the NSA diverted large volumes of international data passing through fiber-optic cables in the United States into a repository where the material could be stored temporarily for processing and selection.

The operation to obtain what the agency called “multiple communications transactions” collected and commingled U.S. and foreign e-mails…. NSA lawyers told the court that the agency could not practicably filter out the communications of Americans.

In October 2011, months after the program got underway, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court ruled that the collection effort was unconstitutional. The court said that the methods used were “deficient on statutory and constitutional grounds,” according to a top-secret summary of the opinion, and it ordered the NSA to comply with standard privacy protections or stop the program.

James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, has acknowledged that the court found the NSA in breach of the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures, but the Obama administration has fought a Freedom of Information lawsuit that seeks the opinion.

[My emphasis]

Keep in mind that there are (at least) two different laws operating in different ways—Section 215 of the Patriot Act (ostensibly the legal basis for sweeping up everyone’s mobile phone metadata) and Section 702 of the FISA Amendments (which supposedly allows broad collection of foreign intelligence information through telecom and Internet providers, including content of communications)—which, if the NSA is operating within the (minimal) boundaries of the law, allows the Administration to say that no content is being collected (“only” metadata per Section 215) or that no domestic surveillance is going on (“only” collection where search terms gives the NSA “at least 51 percent confidence” that the surveillance target is overseas), depending on which argument it wants to make at any given moment.

But, reading between the lines, it sounds to me like NSA isn’t operating within even those boundaries—and hence overstepping its legal authority. I wouldn’t be surprised, given that NSA lawyers told the FISC that NSA “could not practicably filter out the communications of Americans,” according to Gelman’s piece, if NSA were basically gathering the content (per Section 702) of everyone—recall Room 641a—and told the court it would look at the content in order to determine if it could “acquire” content under the terms of the law—or something Kafkaesque like that. That was too much even for the FISC and the court told the NSA to knock it off—which is why the court order is so heavily veiled in secrecy. Again, that’s just my guess.