Documents Show NSA Violated Court Restrictions

The National Security Agency violated special court restrictions on the use of a database of telephone calls, but the NSA says it fixed those problems. That's the bottom line from more documents declassified by the director of National Intelligence. The document dump is part of an effort to share more details about NSA surveillance activities that were uncovered by former government contractor Edward Snowden.

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And I'm Renee Montagne. We're going to turn, now, to new revelations of how the National Security Agency is managing a massive database of most of Americans' phone traffic. A special court has said the NSA violated its restrictions on the use of that telephone data. That's the bottom line from another big pile of documents declassified by the Director of National Intelligence.

That particular document dump is part of an effort to share more details about NSA surveillance activities leaked by Edward Snowden. NPR's National Security Correspondent Larry Abramson joins us. And, Larry, what exactly was the NSA doing, and how did it violate those court imposed rules?

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: So, yeah. So once again we're talking about this huge collection of phone numbers that we know the NSA has been collecting - most of the phone traffic in the United States. Not the contents, Renee, remember; it's just who calls whom. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court said that the NSA can only search this database when they have a reasonable, articulable(ph) suspicion of some sort of connection to terror.

And in 2009 the government told the court that for years they'd been using an alert list that did not meet their standard. The government realized this, reported it to the court, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court was quite upset about this, because for years it had been relying on the government to reassure it that the program was OK and they had been reauthorized in the program.

And so this court reined in the program for a while. And back and forth, the NSA investigating how this could've happened, admitted that the program was basically too complicated and that no single person at the NSA had a complete understanding of how the program works. So they tried to fix that but in the meantime thousands of people have had their phone numbers checked, even though they weren't really subject to any kind of investigation by the FBI.

MONTAGNE: Which sounds damaging to the government's argument that this program is closely monitored.

ABRAMSON: Right.

MONTAGNE: What does the government say?

ABRAMSON: The government says this shows just how closely the program is monitored. The NSA uncovered these problems on its own, reported it to the court. They told Congress about it and the court stepped in and did something about it which is, they say, how this is supposed to work. The director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, said in a statement that this demonstrates the government has taken extraordinary measures to identify and correct mistakes that have occurred in implementing this program.

And in addition, Clapper pointed out that he has - the NSA has introduced a Director of Compliance position to make sure these things don't happen without somebody noticing and that Director of Compliance has 300 people trying to keep these mistakes from happening. And they're all pretty busy because the program is so large and complex.

MONTAGNE: Well, civil liberties groups have filed a lawsuit aimed at shutting the program down, and at getting these documents released. But how do they read them?

ABRAMSON: Well, they say it's more evidence that the rules are not being followed and that it takes years to find out about that. And that the NSA just isn't really capable of managing this program according to the rules that it itself has agreed to. They're hoping these documents will give them some evidence that they can use in court to challenge the constitutionality of the program so those abuses would basically be something they could present in court.

And it also, they say, shows the problem with having a court where only one party - the government - argues for these wiretaps. Nobody else gets to appear and say, court, this is a bad idea. Some lawmakers suggested that it would be good to have somebody else, like a civil liberties group, argue on the other side.

MONTAGNE: Just got a few seconds here, but Larry, lots of documents released about NSA surveillance. Place this in context.

ABRAMSON: Well, the big story was what we learned months ago and that this collection exists, that basically almost all of the phone calls in the U.S. are being tracked in some ways. This story is incremental and it just shows us how this program works. It also tells us something about this secret court, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, about which most Americans I think knew very little until the Snowden leaks came out.

And it's pretty fascinating to read the back and forth between the court and the government and just see how frustrated these judges are in trying to understand this very complex technical collection.

MONTAGNE: Right.

ABRAMSON: And...

MONTAGNE: Larry, thanks. We're going to have to leave it at that. Thanks very much.

ABRAMSON: OK.

MONTAGNE: NPR National Security Correspondent Larry Abramson.

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