Newly declassified documents reveal that the NSA routinely violated court orders covering privacy protections, and, according to officials, its workers often didn’t understand the rules they were supposed to follow.
Reuters reported Tuesday that the NSA examined private phone records without sufficient cause to link them to suspected terrorist activities for a three year period, 2006-2009.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees requests by spy agencies to tap phones and capture email in pursuit of information about foreign targets, required the NSA to have a “reasonable articulable suspicion” that phone numbers were connected to suspected terrorists before agents could search a massive call database to see what other numbers they had connected to, how often and for how long.
But between 2006 and 2009, the agency used an “alert list” to search daily additions to the U.S. calling data, and that list contained mostly numbers that merely been deemed of possible foreign intelligence value, a much lower threshold.
The alert list grew from about 3,980 phone numbers in 2006 to 17,835 by early 2009, and only 2,000 of the larger number met the required standard for certified reasonable suspicion of a terrorist tie, officials said.
Additionally, some of those numbers were improperly passed along to the CIA, Reuters reports.
Remember, less than a month ago the NSA was assuring the world that it wasn’t misbehaving, and President Obama said, in effect, that the nation should trust the government, even as revelations were surfacing that the secret court assigned to oversee the NSA caught the federal government lying to cover up breaches of conduct. The new records, released under another legal challenge by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union, show that the abuses were even wider than previously thought. As for the NSA, it says it’s fixed the problems.
At least two Democratic senators aren’t so sure. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado, who have been sharp critics of the NSA actions, issued a joint statement:
When the executive branch acknowledged last month that ‘rules, regulations and court-imposed standards’ intended to protect Americans’ privacy had been violated thousands of times each year we said that this confirmation was ‘the tip of a larger iceberg.’ With the documents declassified and released this afternoon by the Director of National Intelligence, the public now has new information about the size and shape of that iceberg. Additional information about these violations was contained in other recently-released court opinions, though some significant information—particularly about violations pertaining to the bulk email records collection program—remains classified. ...
We have said before that we have seen no evidence that the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records has provided any intelligence that couldn’t be gathered through less intrusive means and that bulk collection should be ended. These documents provide further evidence that bulk collection is not only a significant threat to the constitutional liberties of Americans, but that it is a needless one.