Declassified docs: NSA violated rules for years, searched Americans’ phone records

posted at 8:01 pm on September 10, 2013 by Mary Katharine Ham

The NSA violated the privacy rules that govern its massive collection of Americans’ phone call records, delving into them repeatedly for three years without required legal justification, according to documents released today as a result of a privacy advocacy group’s lawsuit. The violations took place from 2006-2009 and the NSA apparently misled the FISA court about the extent of their spying over that time. The most unsettling part? I’ll let this quote speak for itself:

Officials said the violations were inadvertent, because NSA officials didn’t understand their own phone-records collection program. Gen. Keith Alexander, the head of the NSA, told the judge in a 2009 legal declaration that “from a technical standpoint, there was no single person who had a complete technical understanding of the [business record] system architecture.”

Supporters of NSA programs have often defended them by emphasizing that mistakes are rare, inadvertent, or both. It doesn’t mitigate my violation of privacy much, in my estimation, if the violation is inadvertent, but let’s say I bought that argument. What to make of this? The revelation that there are inadvertent violations because there’s literally no one who understands the program well enough to prevent violations is not comforting. Perhaps supporters of the NSA will argue that knowledge of the entire system is not centralized in any one person’s head as a security measure, but then you’d have to explain how the lowly Edward Snowden knew so much while a complete understanding of the rules governing a treasure trove of Americans’ private phone call information was such a guarded secret.

And, let’s deal with whether violations were rare. Survey says:

The alert list grew from 3,980 in 2006 to 17,835 in 2009, one of the officials said. About 2,000 numbers on the list in 2009 met the necessary legal standard, the official said, meaning almost 16,000 didn’t. The alert list was shut down on Jan. 24, 2009, according to one of the declassified documents.

Roughly 11 percent of the alert list numbers being checked met the standard.

And, undermining claims of innocuous accidental spying, the NSA misled the FISA court about violations for years. At the very least, this is criminal negligence. Bloomberg again:

However, the NSA misled the court during those years by certifying that the necessary legal standard was being met for all numbers queried, the official said. Lawyers interacting with the court didn’t understand what was being done under the program, the official said.

It wasn’t the first time the NSA has acknowledged violations or that it misled the court.

The Wall Street Journal reported intelligence officials can’t remember anyone being fired over the abuses of the system. Sigh:

James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said the NSA’s discovery of the problems with the phone-records program and its reporting to the court show that oversight of the NSA surveillance programs works as designed.

The documents released Tuesday “are a testament to the government’s strong commitment to detecting, correcting and reporting mistakes,” Mr. Clapper said in a statement. He blamed the errors on the “complexity of the technology.”

The Washington Post further explains the program in which these numbers were accessed:

At issue was the NSA’s use of an “alert list” of numbers linked to terrorist suspects to see whether there had been any contact between those numbers and any numbers in the database, officials said. NSA was using that tool to see whether any numbers in the database should be followed up on for further analysis.

In fact, only numbers in which analysts could prove there was “reasonable articulable suspicion” of a link to foreign terrorists could be queried against the database, according to court-approved rules.

Walton said NSA’s explanation for its violation of the court order — that some NSA personnel thought the querying rules applied only to archived data — “strains credulity.” He also expressed consternation at NSA’s inaccurate description of the process it was using to query the database.

“The court finds that the government’s failure to ensure that responsible officials adequately understood the NSA’s alert list process, and to accurately report its implementation to the court, has prevented for more than two years both the government and the FISC from taking steps to remedy daily violations,” Walton wrote.

We’re well past the time when simply trusting these guys’ good intentions and competence to protect our data seems like a good idea. All the 1,800 declassified documents are here.

And, lest we blame Bush for all this, there’s this revelation.


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PIGS!

Scrumpy on September 10, 2013 at 8:04 PM

Ever since I first became aware of the NSA I figured they were eavesdropping on the American public and if not them, then one of the alphabet soup national security interests.

Logus on September 10, 2013 at 8:07 PM

…One cannot argue that this president is anything other than a flaming hypocrite on transparency and civil liberties issues.

That’s not all he is… * spit *

Words fail me…

Effing PIG!

Scrumpy on September 10, 2013 at 8:09 PM

Welcome back MKH, I hope Georgia is thriving. I wonder why people don’t get spun up about this? Is it because most of us know we don’t do anything wrong? What is it going to take, when they manipulate their collected data to hurt someone they have a political problem with?

Cindy Munford on September 10, 2013 at 8:13 PM

Welcome back MKH! I hope the little one is doing well. I’m looking forward to seeing more of your blogs here soon.

simkeith on September 10, 2013 at 8:17 PM

Cue the “If you don’t have anything to hide”, “The NSA is just doing its job”, & “There isn’t anything wrong with this”

tetriskid on September 10, 2013 at 8:18 PM

When you do something thousands of times over a period of many years, it’s not “inadvertent”.

Wendya on September 10, 2013 at 8:18 PM

The other eave drops.

. . . k, skipping quietly by this, going to this: :)

Supporters of NSA programs have often defended them by emphasizing that mistakes are rare, inadvertent, or both.

Same argument, always. The program is necessary, and the abuses, violations, and accidents don’t matter because they don’t happen to many people. And somehow, the people making the argument can never imagine themselves as the unfortunate few.

We need the work the secret police do. “People disappearing” is rare, and everyone else is safe. And the drunken uncle that always shows up with that argument is this: if you are innocent, you have nothing to worry about.

Axe on September 10, 2013 at 8:19 PM

PIGS!

Scrumpy on September 10, 2013 at 8:04 PM

…a Bishop…with authority!

KOOLAID2 on September 10, 2013 at 8:23 PM

We need the work the secret police do. “People disappearing” is rare, and everyone else is safe. And the drunken uncle that always shows up with that argument is this: if you are innocent, you have nothing to worry about.

Axe on September 10, 2013 at 8:19 PM

We need to terrorize you to keep you safe from terrorists… except for that whole Boston thing.

tetriskid on September 10, 2013 at 8:25 PM

To use the Obama Administration’s favorite metaphor;

IT WAS A ROGUE COMPUTER PROGRAM!

GarandFan on September 10, 2013 at 8:26 PM

Defund.

Destroy all data.

Fire all employee and ban them from government positions and from lobbying positions for life.

Let the military say what it really needs in the way of INTEL, because this civil rights breaching INTEL business needs to go the way of the Dodo.

ajacksonian on September 10, 2013 at 8:26 PM

Hey, the Hamster is back.

rdbrewer on September 10, 2013 at 8:31 PM

Welcome Back MKH!!!! Good to see you again :)

Hope all is well with you and baby :)

Scrumpy on September 10, 2013 at 8:34 PM

KOOLAID2 on September 10, 2013 at 8:23 PM

Psssst… I finally wrote a new one ;) ;) … :)

Scrumpy on September 10, 2013 at 8:35 PM

Axe on September 10, 2013 at 8:19 PM

Yeppers, nothing to worry about, until all our freedoms are gone.

Yeppers, nought to worry about… spit

Scrumpy on September 10, 2013 at 8:36 PM

…the drunken uncle that always shows up with that argument is this: if you are innocent, you have nothing to worry about.

Axe on September 10, 2013 at 8:19 PM

Oh yeah. I did jury duty once with a guy that said “if he’s innocent, why did the police arrest him?”

slickwillie2001 on September 10, 2013 at 8:37 PM

OOOPS???

Reuters Top News ‏@Reuters 1m

Most 2006-2009 NSA queries of a phone database broke court rules http://reut.rs/18abbMU
=========================

SAN FRANCISCO | Tue Sep 10, 2013 8:31pm EDT

(Reuters) – The National Security Agency routinely violated court-ordered privacy protections between 2006 and 2009 by examining phone numbers without sufficient intelligence tying them to associates of suspected terrorists, according to U.S. officials and documents that were declassified on Tuesday.
(More…..)
===========

http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/09/11/us-usa-security-nsa-violations-idUSBRE9891F920130911?feedType=RSS&feedName=topNews&utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter&dlvrit=992637

canopfor on September 10, 2013 at 8:43 PM

If you think we are free today, you know nothing about tyranny and even less about freedom

roflmmfao

donabernathy on September 10, 2013 at 8:53 PM

It’s funny how this info is released during the fake Syria crisis.

faraway on September 10, 2013 at 9:10 PM

Talk about your Friday night dump.

Don’t forget to remember this on Monday folks.

petunia on September 10, 2013 at 9:21 PM

Oh, and another thing…

Snowden’s a traitor!

WryTrvllr on September 10, 2013 at 10:22 PM

The violations took place from 2006-2009 and the NSA apparently misled the FISA court about the extent of their spying over that time.

Lessee here, Bush was president in 2006, 2007, 2008 and the first month of 2009.

But Bush wasn’t mentioned in this article at all…?

I did a page search to be sure and besides my post came up with this from the Green Room side bar:

By the way, Obama secretly reversed Bush-era limitations on NSA powers

Uh, what limitations?

There seems to be a contradiction here.

Well, nothing to see here folks, move along now.

Dr. ZhivBlago on September 10, 2013 at 11:01 PM

I wonder why people don’t get spun up about this? Is it because most of us know we don’t do anything wrong? What is it going to take, when [we find out that] they manipulate[d] their collected data to hurt someone they have a political problem with?

Cindy Munford on September 10, 2013 at 8:13 PM

Just a little revision there, Cindy.

AesopFan on September 10, 2013 at 11:30 PM

Uh, what limitations?

There seems to be a contradiction here.

Well, nothing to see here folks, move along now.

Dr. ZhivBlago on September 10, 2013 at 11:01 PM

The limitations are what were being violated.
No limitations, no violation.

AesopFan on September 10, 2013 at 11:31 PM

Feigning ignorance has become quite popular in DC. We have the idiots at the IRS claiming they had no idea that what they were doing was wrong… the dumb asses at the GSA who had no idea that mis-spending was wrong… an now the geniuses at the NSA can’t quite grasp the restrictions on domestic spying.

I’m getting pretty g*d damned sick and tired of these excuses.

Hill60 on September 10, 2013 at 11:58 PM

So basically the same time the obama campaign was up and running for 2008.

Ronnie on September 11, 2013 at 1:38 AM

Ronnie – but he didn’t have access to the data in 2008. He obviously had it in 2012. There is absolutely no reason to believe that some of this intel was not transferred to the Obama campaign, since they were already enlisting the IRS’ help in voter suppression activity.

My guess is that if the NSA revelations came during Bush, we would expect a clean up. But let’s face it – only the most partisan left wing hack would suggest Bush had no honor. You may not have liked him as president, but he was an hororable man as was his father. This president, more than just the rabid right realize he has no honor, and as the Syria situation suggests, also no competence for the job.

So sad.

Zomcon JEM on September 11, 2013 at 8:39 AM

Zomcom.

The article said 2006. What does that have to do with Obama?

In your opinion I’m curious as to why you think people would think Bush has honor when Obama had none.

I personally dont think Bush starting a war that a lot of my friends went and died in when he himself ditched his war duties was very honorable.

Again, thats my personal opinion as you’re entitled to yours but I dont seem to think why you think more people would share yours than mines. I would bet just like everything else it would be split among partisan lines.

Politricks on September 11, 2013 at 11:04 AM

Politricks on September 11, 2013 at 11:04 AM

Isn’t it amazing what a few rogue IRS agents can do?

WryTrvllr on September 11, 2013 at 1:26 PM