While many Americans were cozying up on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, the National Security Agency was busy posting dozens of quarterly reports detailing incidents where it potentially violated U.S. laws through improper monitoring of U.S. citizens and foreigners.
Here’s what you need to know about the document dump:
What is the NSA supposed to do?
The NSA, like other American intelligence agencies, relies on a 1981 executive order that legalized the surveillance of foreigners living outside of the U.S. It uses that same executive order “to sweep up the international communications of countless Americans,” the American Civil Liberties Union writes.
“At the targeting stage, NSA collects only those communications that it is authorized by law to collect in response to valid foreign intelligence and counterintelligence requirements,” the NSA report’s executive summary reads. “After foreign intelligence or counterintelligence information is acquired, it must be analyzed to remove or mask certain protected categories of information, including U.S. person information, unless specific exceptions apply.”
“Data incorrectly acquired is almost always deleted,” it continues.
After data is collected, it is placed in a large database that the agency’s employees can search with highly specific requests.
“For instance, a query for “improvised explosive devices” would likely be prohibited as overly broad and result in a reportable incident—even if the analyst required the information for her job,” the summary states. “Results returned from improper queries may be deleted. …”
Why were these documents released?
Of course, it doesn’t happen quite like that. Edward Snowden’s 2013 leaks revealed the NSA is monitoring more than 1 billion people globally. Its spying on Americans is expansive.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit that has been dredging up documents since July 2013. These most recent documents are a series of quarterly reports turned over to the President’s Intelligence Oversight Board. They date from late 2001 to mid-year 2013.
“In general, each NSA report contains similar categories of information, including an overview of recent oversight activities conducted by NSA’s Office of the Inspector General and the Office of the General Counsel; signals intelligence activities affecting certain protected categories; and descriptions of specific incidents which may have been unlawful or contrary to applicable policies,” the NSA executive summary states.
What do the documents contain?
The heavily redacted reports detail many, many incidents where NSA agents pulled up the wrong information with the database. Each incident is followed by a statement that the data was either not accessed or the query and results were deleted.
Other reports cover agents being granted access to data without the proper training or using searches that were no longer meant to be in effect. Raw data was at times accidentally emailed or kept on an unsecured computer.
There is also at least one instance where an NSA employee purposefully sought out data that was both unnecessary and illegal. One document states a woman went through her husband’s phone contacts “without his knowledge to obtain names and phone numbers for targeting” over a period of 2-3 years.
What will happen to the NSA?
This is not the first documentation of errors and abuse by the NSA. A 2013 letter to Senator Charles Grassley from the NSA inspector general documented “intentional misuse” in 12 different instances.
The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board published a report in January stating the case for ending phone records collection. But legislators have yet to pass any limits on the NSA’s power.
So in the grand scheme of documents released by the NSA, these are not the most shocking. It is unclear when public outcry will turn into actual legislative action.