President Barack Obama can keep making late night talk show appearances and giving speeches about restoring Americans’ trust in the government if he wants, but new revelations about privacy violations may have made that task a little tougher.
The Washington Post reported late Thursday evening that the National Security Agency (NSA) has broken privacy rules 2,776 times in just the last 12 months, according to an internal audit provided to the paper by Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower (emphasis added):
Most of the infractions involve unauthorized surveillance of Americans or foreign intelligence targets in the United States, both of which are restricted by statute and executive order. They range from significant violations of law to typographical errors that resulted in unintended interception of U.S. e-mails and telephone calls.
The Obama administration has provided almost no public information about the NSA’s compliance record. In June, after promising to explain the NSA’s record in “as transparent a way as we possibly can,” Deputy Attorney General James Cole described extensive safeguards and oversight that keep the agency in check. “Every now and then, there may be a mistake,” Cole said in congressional testimony.
The NSA audit obtained by The Post, dated May 2012, counted 2,776 incidents in the preceding 12 months of unauthorized collection, storage, access to or distribution of legally protected communications. Most were unintended. Many involved failures of due diligence or violations of standard operating procedure. The most serious incidents included a violation of a court order and unauthorized use of data about more than 3,000 Americans and green-card holders.
The Washington Post points to a few different “incidents” in which the NSA broke privacy rules, including one instance in 2008 where they intercepted a number of calls from Washington, DC because of a programming error.
The NSA, conveniently, didn’t report this or similar abuses to agency oversight officials. They literally tried to brush many of these abuses, many of which are conducted without a warrant, under the rug.
“If a f**ing TYPO can cause bulk interception of calls from DC,” tweeted Julian Sanchez, a research fellow at the Cato Institute who is quoted in the Washington Post article, “you’ve built a machine that shouldn’t exist. “
But no, the White House, the NSA, and the programs supporters from both sides of the aisle say that the spying programs haven’t been abused. President Obama actually made that claim during a press conference just last week.
“If you look at the reports — even the disclosures that Mr. Snowden has put forward — all the stories that have been written, what you’re not reading about is the government actually abusing these programs and listening in on people’s phone calls or inappropriately reading people’s emails,” said Obama, playing his usual word games.
“What you’re hearing about is the prospect that these could be abused,” he added. “Now part of the reason they’re not abused is because they’re — these checks are in place, and those abuses would be against the law and would be against the orders of the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court].”
Ummm, yeah, about that. Everything the President Obama, administration officials, and the NSA has told Americans about these programs has turned out to be either incredibly misleading or an outright lie.
But this is what happens when governments consume power and it goes virtually unchecked. And what’s truly bothersome about all of this is that we could have, and we should have, had this debate years ago.
Thankfully, through the actions of Edward Snowden and a several principled members of Congress from both sides of the aisle, we’re finally having it.