SAN FRANCISCO — U.S. officials for nearly three years accessed data on thousands of domestic phone numbers they shouldn’t have and then misrepresented their actions to a secret spy court to reauthorize the government’s surveillance program, documents released yesterday show.
The government’s explanation points to an enormous surveillance infrastructure with such incredible power that even the National Security Agency doesn’t fully know how to properly use it: Officials told a judge in 2009 that the system is so large and complicated that “there was no single person who had a complete technical understanding” of it.
The documents, which the Obama administration was compelled to release as part of a lawsuit by a civil liberties group, show that National Security Agency analysts routinely exceeded their mission to track only phone numbers with reasonable connections to terrorism.
Officials said that the complexity of the computer system — and a misunderstanding of the laws, court orders and internal policies controlling analysts’ actions — contributed to the abuses. There’s no evidence that the NSA intentionally used its surveillance powers to spy on Americans for political purposes, a fear of many critics who recall the FBI’s intrusive surveillance of civil rights leaders and protesters in the 1960s.
“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,” said Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. “As demonstrated in these documents, once compliance incidents were discovered in the telephony metadata collection program, additional checks, balances and safeguards were developed to help prevent future instances of noncompliance.”
The Obama administration had conceded earlier that, when it secretly began gathering Americans’ phone and Internet records in 2006, it scooped up more domestic phone calls and emails than Congress or a court authorized. But many details of the program’s abuse were not known until yesterday.