Patrick Semansky, Associated Press
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. In one instance, the government said its violations were caused by "poor management, lack of involvement by compliance officials and lack of internal verification procedures, not by bad faith." In another case, the NSA said it improperly collected information due to a typographical error.
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.
The latest release reflects the administration's strenuous efforts to maintain its legal authority to collect Americans' phone records amid opposition on Capitol Hill.
Meanwhile, in a legal victory for the administration, the Supreme Court on Monday refused to intervene in the NSA controversy. It rejected a call from a privacy group to stop the agency from collecting the telephone records of millions of Verizon customers in the United States. While the justices on Monday declined to get involved in this issue, other lawsuits on the topic are making their way through the lower courts around the country.
In the new disclosures, some files were declassified ostensibly to show that even when NSA employees collected records improperly or improperly shared material among themselves, those problems were reported to the intelligence court and new procedures were put in place to prevent them from happening again.
Similar documents about the U.S. collecting phone records were previously declassified and published in response to a lawsuit filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Obama administration has revealed others to convince Congress to allow it to continue collecting the phone records.
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 terror 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.
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