WASHINGTON – The National Security Agency reported its own violations of surveillance rules to a U.S. intelligence court and promised additional safety measures to prevent similar missteps over and over again, according to more than 1,000 pages of newly declassified files about the federal government’s controversial program of collecting every American’s phone records during the past seven years.
According to court records from 2009, after repeated assurances the NSA would obey the court’s rules, it acknowledged that it had collected material improperly.
The intelligence court judge, U.S. District Judge John D. Bates, said in the 2009 case that since the government had repeatedly offered so many assurances despite the problems continuing, “those responsible for conducting oversight at the NSA had failed to do so effectively.” Bates called his conclusion “the most charitable interpretation possible.”
The Obama administration published the heavily censored files Monday night as part of an ongoing civil liberties lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the government’s collection of phone records, which the White House has said is important to countering terrorism. The files published Monday night were so heavily censored that one of the two justifications for the government to search through Americans’ phone records was blacked out.
After the NSA began the bulk collection program in 2006, one NSA inspector general’s report said rules already in place were “adequate” and “in several aspects exceed the terms” of what the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court had required. But it recommended three additional practices be formally adopted. These included such obvious ideas as not allowing analysts who searched phone records in the terrorist database also to approve which numbers can be searched, and periodically checking the phone numbers that analysts searched to make sure they had actually been approved.
Despite the assurances in 2006 that rules were adequate, problems surfaced in 2009 that were so serious that the intelligence court temporarily shut down the surveillance program.
The documents included training materials for NSA analysts, who were warned that they should only search the database of all phone records for numbers they suspected were associated with terrorists: “Analysts are NOT free to use a telephone selector based on a hunch or guess,” according to a 2007 training presentation. It added that the NSA’s legal standard for picking a phone number for a terrorism suspect required “some minimal level of objective justification.”