WASHINGTON — The National Security Agency has broken privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times each year since Congress granted the agency broad new powers in 2008.
Most of the infractions involve unauthorized surveillance of Americans or foreign intelligence targets in the United States, both of which are restricted by law and executive order, according to documents leaked by former NSA analyst Edward Snowden and first published Thursday in The Washington Post. They range from significant violations of law to typographical errors that resulted in unintended interception of U.S. emails and telephone calls, the Post said, citing a May 3, 2012, internal audit and other top-secret documents provided it earlier this summer.
In one of the documents, agency personnel are instructed to remove details and substitute more generic language in reports to the Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
The Post cited a 2008 example of the collection of a "large number" of phone records from Washington, D.C.-based phone numbers when a programming error confused the U.S. area code for the capital of 202 for 20-2, the international dialing code for Egypt and the city code for Cairo, according to a "quality assurance" review that was not distributed to the NSA's oversight staff.
The NSA also saw a large spike in the number of "roamers," or overseas, phone calls wrongly tracked in the first quarter of 2012, when those roamers traveled into the United States territory, which is outside NSA's authority. The May 2012 compliance report said the errors may have been due to tracking Chinese targets who were visiting friends and relatives for the Chinese lunar new year.