Members of Congress expressed outrage Friday after news reports indicated that the National Security Agency had broken privacy rules thousands of times a year while administering surveillance programs, just a week after President Barack Obama had tried to allay growing concerns about the spying..
The brunt of the criticism came from Democratic lawmakers – including some of Obama’s strongest allies – who called for greater oversight and public release of the latest secret documents released by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
“I’m deeply troubled by these searing and serious criticisms of NSA practices,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who’s proposed legislative changes to the secret court that oversees NSA surveillance programs. “It supports the contention that we need far-reaching reform.”
Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., called the violations unacceptable. “The administration has a responsibility to aggressively protect constitutional rights, yet it appears time and again that it is instead covering up for errors and blatantly violating checks and balances designed to protect Americans,” he said.
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Obama, who was vacationing with his family on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, made no public comments on the issue Friday. The White House released a statement late Friday, saying the documents reflect work by an NSA office that was established in 2009 to ensure that such incidents are tracked.
“The documents demonstrate that the NSA is monitoring, detecting, addressing and reporting compliance incidents,” Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest said. He said the White House had kept Congress “appropriately informed” of the infractions and that administration officials “look forward to working with members of both parties on additional reforms.”
In a statement, the NSA said it had a “persistent, dedicated effort to identify incidents at the earliest possible moment, implement mitigation measures wherever possible and drive the numbers down.”
The Washington Post reported that NSA infractions ranging from “significant violations of law to typographical errors that resulted in unintended interception of U.S. emails and telephone calls” had occurred each year since 2008, when Congress granted the agency new powers.
The newspaper said an internal audit and what it called other top-secret documents “include a level of detail and analysis that is not routinely shared with Congress or the special court that oversees surveillance.”
The May 2012 audit totaled 2,776 incidents in the preceding 12 months, the Post said. They included “unauthorized collection, storage, access to or distribution of legally protected communications.” The most serious incidents “included a violation of a court order and unauthorized use of data about more than 3,000 Americans and green-card holders.”
The leaders of the Senate and House of Representatives Intelligence committees, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said their committees receive reports on the incidents, which often are due to “human and technical errors.”
“The disclosed documents demonstrate that there was no intentional and willful violation of the law and that the NSA is not collecting the email and telephone traffic of all Americans,” Rogers said.
But Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Mark Udall, D-Colo., two of their chamber’s biggest NSA critics, issued a statement that said the violations were “just the tip of a larger iceberg.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called the revelations “extremely disturbing,” and said Congress must conduct rigorous oversight to ensure that all incidents of noncompliance were reported to the appropriate committees and court quickly.
In June, Snowden released documents that showed the NSA is collecting the telephone records of tens of millions of Verizon customers, as well as emails through nine companies, including tech giants Microsoft, Yahoo, Google and Facebook.
Obama announced last week that in an effort to provide greater oversight and transparency he would urge changes to the USA Patriot Act, which bolstered law enforcement’s ability to gather intelligence after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
Before his announcement, some lawmakers, technology organizations and civil liberty groups had urged Obama and his top aides to curtail the surveillance programs. Some of those same groups reacted strongly to Friday’s reports.
“The number of ‘compliance incidents’ is jaw-dropping,” said Jameel Jaffer, the American Civil Liberties Union’s deputy legal director. “The rules around government surveillance are so permissive that it is difficult to comprehend how the intelligence community could possibly have managed to violate them so often.”
A senior NSA official, who spoke with White House permission on the condition of anonymity, told the Post: “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.”
Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., delivered a scathing criticism of his colleagues.
“This is what happens when you have secret laws, no meaningful oversight and people in charge who think the Constitution wasn’t written for them,” he said. “There are good people working in the intelligence community, but the culture is broken because of the failed leadership of Democrats and Republicans in Washington.”
Jonathan S. Landay and William Douglas contributed to this report.