The leaks regarding the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs keep coming, sparking further outrage, distrust and, of course, calls for more hearings on the Hill.
The Washington Post late Thursday published a May 2012 internal audit NSA conducted on its own surveillance programs that revealed 2,776 incidents of “unauthorized collection, storage, access to or distribution of legally protected communications” over the previous 12 months, The Post reported. Most were attributed to human error (one in 10 was attributed to a typographical error), deviation from standard operating procedures or a technical failure.
For instance, a programming error mistook the area code 202 — Washington, D.C. — for the code 20 — the international dialing code for Egypt — and NSA mistakenly intercepted a significant number of calls placed from Washington.
The Friday revelations caused consternation among lawmakers, including some supporters of the surveillance programs. The audit had not been previously shared with lawmakers, only high-level NSA officials.
“Press reports that the National Security Agency broke privacy rules thousands of times per year and reportedly sought to shield required disclosure of privacy violations are extremely disturbing,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement. Pelosi recently bucked the majority of fellow House Democrats and voted against an amendment attempting to severely limit NSA’s surveillance programs.
Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich. — who co-sponsored the amendment with Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich. — used the new information as a chance to repeat his criticism of the programs.
“This is what happens when you have secret laws, no meaningful oversight and people in charge who think the Constitution wasn’t written for them,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “There are good people working in the intelligence community, but the culture is broken because of the failed leadership of Democrats and Republicans in Washington.”
The audit only looked at incidents at NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Md. According to The Post, government officials said the number of incidents “would be substantially higher” had all NSA facilities been included in the audit.
And 2012 was not the first time NSA had noticed unintentional violations. The agency doubled its oversight staff after several “significant” violations in 2009. Still, the rate of infractions increased in 2011 and 2012, according to The Post.
NSA, in response, said while the numbers look damming, the number of violations is still minuscule compared to the vast quantity of total information collected. And there will always be some human error because NSA is “a human-run agency operating in a complex environment,” a senior NSA official told The Post, speaking with the White House’s permission, but on the condition of anonymity (New York magazine has speculated the source is John DeLong, NSA director of compliance).
“You can look at it as a percentage of our total activity that occurs each day,” the official added. “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.”
The defense did not quell civil liberties advocates. Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, called the number of incidents “jaw dropping.”
“The rules around government surveillance are so permissive that it is difficult to comprehend how the intelligence community could possibly have managed to violate them so often,” he said. “Obviously it’s important to know what precisely these compliance incidents involved, and some are more troubling than others. But at least some of these incidents seem to have implicated the privacy of thousands or millions of innocent people.”
Congress will try to tease out some of those specifics after it reconvenes Sept. 9. Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said Friday he would call a hearing to discuss the details of the audit — “I remain concerned that we are still not getting straightforward answers from the NSA,” he said.
“I plan to hold another hearing on these matters in the judiciary committee and will continue to demand honest and forthright answers from the intelligence community,” he added. “Using advanced surveillance technologies in secret demands close oversight and appropriate checks and balances, and the American people deserve no less than that.”