After something of a disastrous 2014 as far as public relations goes, the NSA chose Christmas Eve to release a pile of incriminating reports forced out into the open by a Freedom of Information request from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The heavily redacted documents reveal evidence of illegal surveillance and staff errors, and the National Security Agency itself admits that analysts “deliberately ignored restrictions on their authority to spy on Americans multiple times in the past decade.”
The ACLU say the released reports show the potential dangers of the NSA’s surveillance policies and the ease with which data can be misused. “The government conducts sweeping surveillance under this authority — surveillance that increasingly puts Americans’ data in the hands of the NSA,” Patrick C. Toomey, staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Security Project, told Bloomberg. “Despite that fact, this spying is conducted almost entirely in secret and without legislative or judicial oversight.”
The ACLU is calling for greater oversight for all three branches of government, originally filing the suit to bring to light the implications of an intelligence gathering executive order first issued by President Ronald Reagan in 1981. Since then, it has undergone a variety of modifications, and gives the NSA the ability to gather information about U.S. citizens as a consequence of overseas data monitoring. By law, the agency cannot deliberately intercept messages from Americans, but these messages are often hauled in together with communications captured outside the country
For the NSA’s part, it says that any data it shouldn’t have is deleted as soon as it’s spotted. In its executive summary, the agency goes on to say that where illegal spying occurred it was largely due to a mistake on the part of one of its analysts rather than deliberate rule-breaking: “The vast majority of compliance incidents involve unintentional technical or human error,” reads the summary. “NSA goes to great lengths to ensure compliance with the Constitution, laws and regulations.”
One 2012 case, for example, shows an NSA analyst searching through her spouse’s personal telephone directory without his knowledge to obtain names and telephone numbers for targeting; that analyst “has been advised to cease her activities,” says the report. In another case an analyst mistakenly requested surveillance of himself rather than an individual identified through a foreign intelligence target report.
In another incident from 2012 an analyst ordered surveillance on a U.S. organization that he wasn’t authorized to carry out. “The analyst incorrectly believed that he was authorized to query [the data] due to a potential threat,” reads the report, though nothing came of the surveillance. Any potential violations of NSA regulations are required to be reported to an oversight board as well as the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and it’s reports to the latter office from 2001 to 2013 that have now been made public.