NSA Accused Of Repeatedly Violating Privacy Rules

Documents released to the Washington Post by former National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden show the agency overstepped privacy rules.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. Secret documents published today show the National Security Agency has gone beyond the surveillance authorities that Congress has approved. The Washington Post put some of the reports on its website. They show the NSA violated privacy rules thousands of times. Among the documents is an internal NSA audit. It cites what the agency calls incidents that were not consistent with the laws governing NSA surveillance.

These new revelations have caused quite a stir today and here to make sense of them for us is NPR's Tom Gjelten. And Tom, let's be clear about what we're talking about. What exactly, what rules have been broken?

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Well, Audie, these are rules that the NSA itself has said that it follows. For example, that it will not collect data on American's communications unless those communications involve a suspected foreign terrorist activity overseas. Also, that the NSA will not collect on foreigners when they come into the United States without explicit court permission to do so.

Those are the things that the NSA has promised to do. That's what the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court is responsible for making sure that the NSA does not do. We now know that this has, in fact, happened.

CORNISH: And according to this audit made public by The Post, it happened more than 2,000 times in one 12-month period alone?

GJELTEN: Yes, 2,726 times, Audie to be exact. Now, a couple of things. These do seem to be inadvertent violations. For example, in some cases, these foreigners whose communications were being monitored came into the United States. The NSA did not realize they were in the United States. They continued to monitor their conversations while they were in the United States.

Again, that was accidental, the agency says. In some cases, it's a matter of human error, where the analyst, the NSA analyst, maybe put in the wrong search parameters. Also, in some cases, typographical errors. That's the first thing. Second thing, the NSA is pointing out that these 2,726 incidents were out of 20 million queries. So, actually a very low percentage.

CORNISH: But President Obama's reassured the public that this NSA surveillance program doesn't violate American's privacy. So does this news basically undermine that claim?

GJELTEN: Well, let's be realistic, Audie. I think what this shows is that it's not possible to expect that these privacy rights will be protected absolutely. The scope of this NSA surveillance program is so vast, there are going to be incidents like this. Also, the institution, as they say, that's responsible for overseeing the NSA program, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court, can't possibly do that, can't look over the shoulders of the NSA when it's carrying out this surveillance.

In fact, the chief judge of the surveillance court told The Post today that it does not have the capability to verify all that the NSA says. So in the end, we do have to trust the NSA.

CORNISH: And you spoke with the NSA today talking about trust and what did they say?

GJELTEN: Yeah, I spoke with John DeLong, who is the chief compliance officer there. He was determined to put these disclosures in context. His argument is that this shows, these disclosures show, that the NSA, in fact, has been candid about the times its surveillance program has gone out of bounds. Here's what he had to say.

JOHN DELONG: The documents that are out there contain a catalogue of mistakes. They don't show the millions, the billions of times that NSA's activities have been consistent with the law, right? What they show are the very deliberate attempt on our part to prevent activity that's not consistent with law and policy and then, if and when it does occur, to detect it very rapidly, correct it and address it.

GJELTEN: But the fact remains, we do need to trust you.

DELONG: I think that's inherent in any federal agency, in any organization across this globe.

GJELTEN: Now, whether that will satisfy critics is another question. Senator Pat Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, says he wants hearings into the NSA's activities.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Tom Gjelten. Tom, thank you.

GJELTEN: You bet.

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