As leaks and document releases about the National Security Agency’s surveillance practices continue to make headlines, it’s become clear that even the people running the spy agency are baffled by the scope of the privacy intrusions carried out by the government.
Ceding to public pressure, intelligence officials released secret documents this week detailing how a judge scolded the NSA in 2009 for violating its own procedures and lying to intelligence courts designed to safeguard some shred of American privacy.
From 2006 to 2009, NSA analysts and supercomputers sifted through more American phone records than they were allowed to, often searched databases of phone records without even realizing they had and routinely shared search results with people who weren’t authorized to see them.
“The government has compounded its noncompliance with the court’s orders by repeatedly submitting inaccurate descriptions of the alert list process” to the court, Judge Reggie B. Walton wrote in a 2009 ruling. “It has finally come to light that the F.I.S.C.’s authorizations of this vast collection program have been premised on a flawed depiction of how the N.S.A. uses” the data.
Government lawyers offered a pretty unsettling (if not totally damning) defense of the NSA actions.
“There was no single person who had a complete technical understanding,” government lawyers explained to a Federal judge in 2009.
Furthermore, the lawyers said, intelligence officials didn’t lie to the courts; they simply didn’t understand their own word games.
“It appears there was never a complete understanding among the key personnel regarding what each individual meant by the terminology,” lawyers wrote in March 2009.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper tried to put a positive spin on the information in the documents released Tuesday, saying in a statement: “The documents released today are a testament to the government’s strong commitment to detecting, correcting and reporting mistakes that occur in implementing technologically complex intelligence collection activities, and to continually improving its oversight and compliance processes.”
They are also a testament to why a massive intelligence apparatus with near limitless power to operate in secret is an affront to the Constitutionally guaranteed privacy of all Americans.