The National Security Agency has overstepped its authority and broken privacy rules thousands of times every year since being given new surveillance powers by Congress in 2008, The Washington Post reported, citing an internal audit and other secret documents.
The documents, which the Post claims it received earlier this summer from NSA leaker Edward Snowden, detail how the controversial agency has crossed the line many times over in its collection of massive amounts of data from around the world.
Despite repeated claims by officials that the NSA does not spy on Americans, the Post reports that the bulk of the infractions involved improper surveillance of Americans or foreign targets in the U.S. Some of the infractions were inadvertent, caused by typographical errors resulting in U.S. calls or emails being intercepted. Others were more serious.
The Post reported that the most significant violations included the unauthorized use of information on more than 3,000 Americans and green-card holders. In another incident, the Post reported that a “large number” of calls from Washington were intercepted in 2008 after the Washington area code 202 was confused with the code 20, which is the code for dialing to Egypt.
In total, an NSA audit from May 2012 reportedly found 2,776 incidents in the prior 12 months of improper collection and handling of communications.
In another case, the special court that oversees the NSA did not learn about a new collection method until it had been underway for months. The court ruled the method unconstitutional, according to the Post.
"NSA’s foreign intelligence collection activities are continually audited and overseen internally and externally,” an NSA official told Fox News late Thursday. “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."
In a statement to the Post, the NSA said it tries to identify problems "at the earliest possible moment, implement mitigation measures wherever possible and drive the numbers down."
"We're a human-run agency operating in a complex environment with a number of different regulatory regimes, so at times we find ourselves on the wrong side of the line," a senior NSA official told the newspaper.
The details shed light on the errors and violations in the NSA collection efforts that administration officials so far have addressed only in broad terms.
When the intelligence community made key documents public in late July about the nature of the NSA collection effort, one document said that "there have been a number of technical compliance problems and human implementation errors" in programs that collect both bulk phone and email records.
The document did not reveal much more, other than to state that no "intentional or bad-faith violations" were found. The document said only that the missteps resulted in the "automated tools operating in a manner that was not completely consistent with the specific terms of the court's order."
The Post story showed infractions were widespread. The report said despite the sharp growth in oversight staff, infractions increased through 2011 and early 2012. It was not clear whether the trend continued after that.
President Obama recently vowed to provide more transparency and oversight in the process, but has not bowed to calls to fundamentally change the surveillance programs. Some in Congress, like Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., and leaders of the congressional intelligence committees, have described the collection efforts as critical to national security. Others say they have gone too far and run the risk of infringing on Americans’ right to privacy.
A separate Washington Post report on Thursday also said the chief judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court acknowledged that its ability to provide oversight of the spying programs is limited.