The National Security Agency has quietly released more than a decade of reports detailing surveillance activities that potentially violated U.S. citizens’ privacy rights.
Covering NSA activities from mid-2001 to 2013, the heavily-redacted reports document possible abuses, including instances of employees emailing classified information to unauthorized recipients or issuing “overly broad or poorly constructed data queries that potentially targeted” Americans.
The agency, required by executive order to submit the reports to the President’s Intelligence Oversight Board, posted the information publicly on Christmas Eve in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from the American Civil Liberties Union.
One of the released reports, from 2012, said an NSA analyst “searched her spouse’s personal telephone directory without his knowledge to obtain names and telephone numbers for targeting.” The analyst was “advised to cease her activities.”
In another case from 2012, information on a U.S. citizen was “disseminated to a foreign partner” before later being recalled and its deletion confirmed, according to the report.
In 2009, a U.S. Army sergeant received punishment, including a reduction in rank, after he used an NSA system “to target his wife,” according to The Wall Street Journal.
Civil-liberties groups pounced on the disclosures.
The documents show “how the NSA has misused the information it collects over the past decade,” said Patrick Toomey, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Security Project. “They show an urgent need for greater oversight by all three branches of government.”
The NSA, though, said that the “vast majority” of cases “involve unintentional technical or human error.”
“In the very few cases that involve the intentional misuse of a signals intelligence system, a thorough investigation is completed, the results are reported to the IOB [Intelligence Oversight Board] and the Department of Justice as required,” the agency said in a statement.
“These materials show, over a sustained period of time, the depth and rigor of NSA’s commitment to compliance,” it added. “By emphasizing accountability across all levels of the enterprise, and transparently reporting errors and violations to outside oversight authorities, NSA protects privacy and civil liberties while safeguarding the nation and our allies.”
The report will likely heighten scrutiny on the NSA’s practices following a year where lawmakers were unable to pass a bill to reform the spy agency.
In November, legislation that would have ended the NSA’s phone records program failed to advance in the Senate.
Advocates for reform, including civil liberties groups and the tech industry, are vowing to press ahead in the new year.