WASHINGTON (AP) — New revelations from leaker Edward Snowden that the National Security Agency has overstepped its authority thousands of times since 2008 have undermined White House hopes that President Barack Obama had quieted the controversy with his assurances of oversight.
The revelations are stirring renewed calls in Congress for serious changes to NSA spy programs.
An internal audit provided by Snowden to The Washington Post shows the agency has repeatedly broken privacy rules or exceeded its legal authority every year since Congress granted it broad new powers in 2008.
In the typographical error category, the Post cited a 2008 example of the collection of a “large number” of phone records from when a programming error confused the capital area code 202 for 20-2, the international dialing code for Cairo, according to a quality assurance review that was not distributed to the NSA’s oversight staff.
The NSA also saw a spike in the number of “roamers,” or overseas, phone calls wrongly tracked in the first quarter of 2012, when those roamers traveled into U.S. territory, which is outside NSA’s authority. The report said the errors may have been due to tracking Chinese who were visiting friends and relatives for the Chinese lunar new year.
In another document, agency personnel are instructed to remove details and substitute more generic language in reports to the Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence — reports used as the basis for informing Congress.
Obama has repeatedly said that Congress was thoroughly briefed on the programs revealed by Snowden in June. The two that were described then vacuum up vast amounts of metadata — such as telephone numbers called and called from, the time and duration of calls — from most Americans’ phone records, and scoop up global Internet usage data.
Senior lawmakers said they had been unaware of the audit until they read the news on Friday.
Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy announced he would hold hearings into the revelations.
Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein said her committee had been notified of compliance problems — not by seeing the internal audit but through legally required reports to her committee.
“The committee has never identified an instance in which the NSA has intentionally abused its authority to conduct surveillance for inappropriate purposes,” the Democrat said.
But she said that committee would be asking for additional reports in future, and members would start making routine trips to the NSA to oversee its activities.
Her Republican House counterpart, Intelligence chairman Mike Rogers, said human error was inevitable and “there was no intentional and willful violation of the law.”
But the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, called the new disclosures “incredibly troubling.” He said he had instructed his staff “to thoroughly review and evaluate these allegations.”
Proposed legislation to dismantle the programs was narrowly defeated last month in the House, and at least 19 other pending bills are aimed at restraining NSA’s powers or changing how the agency is regulated, according to a count kept by the American Civil Liberties Union, a human rights advocacy group.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, who generally supports the programs, said in a statement Friday that the new revelations “are extremely disturbing.”
A week ago, Obama sought to soothe concerns by promising to consider reforms to NSA surveillance.
He announced changes such as convening an outside advisory panel to review U.S. surveillance powers, although it is unclear how that would differ from the existing U.S. Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, mandated by Congress to monitor surveillance and constitutional concerns. Obama also said the NSA would hire a privacy officer — though the NSA already has a compliance office. None of those measures would seem likely to stop the kind of inadvertent collection of information that was described in the NSA audit.
Most of the infractions revealed late Thursday involve unauthorized surveillance of Americans or foreign intelligence targets in the United States, both of which are restricted by law and executive order, according to the May 3, 2012 audit, and other top-secret documents.
The White House declined Friday to comment on the latest revelations. It directed questions to the National Security Council, and NSC spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden directed questions to the NSA.
NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines said the number of incidents in the first quarter of 2012 was higher than normal, and that the number has ranged from 372 to 1,162 in the past three years, due to factors such as “implementation of new procedures or guidance with respect to our authorities that prompt a spike that requires ‘fine tuning,’ changes to the technology or software in the targeted environment for which we had no prior knowledge, unforeseen shortcomings in our systems, new or expanded access, and ‘roaming’ by foreign targets into the U.S., some of which NSA cannot anticipate in advance but each instance of which is reported as an incident.”
“When NSA makes a mistake in carrying out its foreign intelligence mission, the agency reports the issue internally and to federal overseers — and aggressively gets to the bottom of it,” Vines said.
The AP filed a Freedom of Information Act request to the NSA on June 17 asking for all copies of “minimization procedures” the agency uses to avoid collecting Internet and telephone data from U.S. citizens. That request sought documents that would also detail how the government purges records that may have been accidentally collected. The AP has yet to receive responsive material, though the NSA agreed to fast-track its request.
Associated Press writers Kimberly Dozier, Jesse J. Holland and Jack Gillum in Washington, and Darlene Superville in West Tisbury, Massachusetts, contributed to this report.