The Times West Virginian

Headline News

September 11, 2013

Documents: Officials misused surveillance program

For nearly three years, government accessed data on thousands of domestic phone numbers

SAN FRANCISCO — Government 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 Tuesday show.

The Obama administration had earlier conceded that its surveillance program scooped up more domestic phone calls and emails than authorized. But until Tuesday, the depths of the program’s abuse were unknown.

According to the documents released by the administration, a spy court judge in 2009 was so fed up with the government’s overreaching that he threatened to shutter the surveillance program designed to fight terrorism. Judge Reggie Walton said in March 2009 that he had “lost confidence” in officials’ ability to legally operate the surveillance program.

The NSA told the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that month that “from a technical standpoint, there was no single person who had a complete technical understanding” of how the program’s computer system worked.

Walton issued his blistering opinion after discovering government officials had been accessing domestic phone records for nearly three years without “reasonable, articulate suspicion” that they were connected to terrorism. For instance, he noted that only 1,935 phone numbers out of 17,835 on a list investigators were working with in early 2009 met that standard.

Walton said the government’s excuse that analysis believed his order applied only to archived phone records “strained credulity,” and he ordered the National Security Agency to conduct an “end-to-end” review of its processes and policies while also ordering closer monitoring of its activities.

Later in 2009, a Justice Department lawyer reported to the spy court a “likely violation” of NSA surveillance rules. The lawyer said that in some cases, it appeared the NSA was distributing sensitive phone records by email to as many as 189 analysts, but only 53 were approved by the court to see them.

Walton wrote that he was “deeply troubled by the incidents,” which he said occurred just weeks after the NSA had performed a major review of its internal practices because of the initial problems reported earlier in the year.

The judge said in November 2009 that on the same day that the NSA counterterrorism office reminded employees they were not allowed to indiscriminately share phone records with co-workers — and one day after a similar reminder from the agency’s lawyers — an NSA analyst improperly shared information with colleagues who were not approved to see it.

Walton also noted that sometimes a U.S. phone number would be reassigned by phone companies, and in such cases the NSA would scrutinize the records of an innocent customer. Walton called such cases “a source of concern by the court.” He noted that, months earlier, the court ordered the NSA to explain more fully how it chooses which phone numbers to search and to delete any information that was improperly collected.

“This report was not sufficiently detailed to allay the court’s concerns,” Walton wrote. He ordered the NSA going forward to regularly tell the court the number of phone records searched, the time period they could be searched and details about how the NSA analysts were conducting searches suggested by results from other searches.

The hundreds of previously classified documents federal officials released Tuesday came in response to a lawsuit filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The Obama administration has been facing mounting pressure to reveal more details about the government’s domestic surveillance program since a former intelligence contractor released documents showing massive National Security Agency trawling of domestic data.

The information included domestic telephone numbers, calling patterns and the agency’s collection of Americans’ Internet user names, IP addresses and other metadata swept up in surveillance of foreign terror suspects.

The Obama administration’s decision to release the documents comes just two weeks after it declassified three secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court opinions — including one in response to a separate EFF lawsuit in federal court in Washington. In that October 2011 opinion, Judge John D. Bates said he was troubled by at least three incidents over three years where government officials admitted to mistaken collection of domestic data.

The NSA’s huge surveillance machine proved unwieldy even for the experts inside the agency. In a long report to the surveillance court in August 2009, the Obama administration blamed its mistakes on the complexity of the system and “a lack of shared understanding among the key stakeholders” about the scope of the surveillance.

Complexity has been a theme since the NSA leaks began this summer. Though Obama said Congress was briefed on the programs, members of Congress said they were surprised to learn how vast and intrusive the surveillance was. Even Rep. James Sensenbrenner, who sponsored the Patriot Act, said he never knew it would be used to sweep up phone records of every American.

1
Text Only
Headline News
  • U.S. weighing military exercises

    The United States is considering deploying about 150 soldiers for military exercises to begin in Poland and Estonia in the next few weeks, a Western official said Saturday. The exercises would follow Russia’s buildup of forces near its border with Ukraine and its annexation last month of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

    April 21, 2014

  • Ukraine, Russia trade blame for shootout

    Within hours of an Easter morning shootout at a checkpoint manned by pro-Russia insurgents in eastern Ukraine, Russia’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement blaming militant Ukrainian nationalists and Russian state television stations aired pictures of supposed proof of their involvement in the attack that left at least three people dead.

    April 20, 2014

  • Governor: Closing Boston amid bomber hunt ‘tough’

    Several days after the Boston Marathon bombing, Gov. Deval Patrick received a call in the pre-dawn hours from a top aide telling him that police officers outside the city had just engaged in a ferocious gun battle with the two men suspected of setting the bombs and that one was dead and the other had fled.

    April 20, 2014

  • Everest avalanche reminder of risks Sherpas face

    The rescuers moved quickly, just minutes after the first block of ice tore loose from Mount Everest and started an avalanche that roared down the mountain, ripping through teams of guides hauling gear.
    But they couldn’t get there quickly enough.

    April 20, 2014

  • Colorado deaths stoke worries about pot edibles

    A college student eats more than the recommended dose of a marijuana-laced cookie and jumps to his death from a hotel balcony. A husband with no history of violence is accused of shooting his wife in the head, possibly after eating pot-infused candy.

    April 19, 2014

  • Everest avalanche kills at least 12

    An avalanche swept down a climbing route on Mount Everest early Friday, killing at least 12 Nepalese guides and leaving four missing in the deadliest disaster on the world’s highest peak. Several more were injured.

    April 19, 2014

  • Diplomacy doesn’t move insurgents in Ukraine

    Pro-Russian insurgents defiantly refused Friday to surrender their weapons or give up government buildings in eastern Ukraine, despite a diplomatic accord reached in Geneva and overtures from the government in Kiev.

    April 19, 2014

  • Clinton to Obama: Many parallels

    Thousands of pages of documents from President Bill Clinton’s White House affirm a longtime adage: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
    As Clinton prepared for an August 1994 news conference in which he hoped to build public support for his struggling — and ultimately unsuccessful — health care overhaul, he told his advisers: “A lot of them want to know they can keep their own plan if they like it.”

    April 19, 2014

  • Obama voices skepticism on Russia in Ukraine

    President Barack Obama conveyed skepticism Thursday about Russian promises to de-escalate a volatile situation in Ukraine, and said the United State and its allies are ready to impose fresh sanctions if Moscow doesn’t make good on its commitments.

    April 18, 2014

  • President defending health-care law good for some Democrats

    President Barack Obama’s full-throated defense of his health-care overhaul seems perfectly timed for Democrats who want their party to embrace the law more enthusiastically.
    At a White House news conference Thursday, Obama noted that health insurance enrollments under the new law are higher than expected, and costs are lower.

    April 18, 2014

House Ads
Featured Ads