Merry Christmas! The NSA Has Been Breaking the Law for Over a Decade

Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

The news: In a vaguely suspicious Christmas Eve news dump, the National Security Agency released reports Wednesday night that detailed intelligence collection practices that violated the law over more than a decade, including unauthorized surveillance of Americans' overseas communications. 

According to The Verge, "the heavily redacted documents were released in response to a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union under the Freedom of Information Act." The documents and incident reports, part of the required quarterly and annual reports to the President's Intelligence Oversight Board, cover the period from the fourth quarter of 2001 to the second quarter of 2013 and detail an alarming number of violations of American privacy.

The violations: Many of these privacy violations were already common knowledge thanks to the massive leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in 2012, but the new trove of declassified documents show new specifics of the NSA's domestic surveillance of Americans, including:

 -  In a 2012 case, an NSA analyst "searched her spouse's personal telephone directory without his knowledge to obtain names and telephone numbers for targeting." Stalking potential romantic partners was apparently so widespread at the agency that analysts referred to it by the nickname LOVEINT (i.e., "love intelligence").

 - Analysts often entered database queries that returned information on U.S. citizens who weren't targeted in the first place. In another 2012 case, an analyst conducted surveillance "on a U.S. organization in a raw traffic database without formal authorization because the analyst incorrectly believed that he was authorized to query due to a potential threat." The surveillance yielded nothing.

The NSA justified these violations as the result of "unintentional technical or human error." "In the very few cases that involve the intentional misuse of a signals intelligence system, a thorough investigation is completed," the NSA said in an executive summary. "NSA goes to great lengths to ensure compliance with the Constitution, laws and regulations."

No changes: Despite documentation of more than a decade of lawbreaking by the agency, Congress has not passed new legislation to curb the NSA's collection of bulk telephone calling and other electronic data from U.S. citizens, despite evidence of wrongdoing by the agency and the conclusion by January report by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board that the program has provided only "minimal" help in thwarting terrorist attacks.

"The government conducts sweeping surveillance under this authority -— surveillance that increasingly puts Americans' data in the hands of the NSA," Patrick C. Toomey, staff attorney with the ACLU's National Security Project, told Bloomberg News in an e-mail. "Despite that fact, this spying is conducted almost entirely in secret and without legislative or judicial oversight."

You can browse the NSA's documents yourself here.

h/t Bloomberg News

Editor's Note: Mar. 2, 2015

An earlier version of this article failed to cite a passage from The Verge in accordance with Mic editorial standards. The article has been updated to properly attribute the language to The Verge.

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Jared Keller

Jared Keller is the former director of news at Mic.

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