NSA: So, We've Had Some Deliberate Privacy Violations, Too

Posted: Aug 26, 2013 4:41 PM

The bad news?  Among the tens of thousands of annual NSA improper surveillance incidents are a handful of violations that the agency now admits were executed intentionally.  The good less bad news?  These wrongful breaches were caught and, in some capacity, punished:

The National Security Agency said Friday that some of its analysts knowingly and deliberately exceeded its surveillance authority on occasion over the past decade and that those involved were disciplined.  "Very rare instances of willful violations of NSA's authorities have been found," the agency said in a statement. It said none of the abuses involved violations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act or the USA Patriot Act. NSA violations of both laws have been highlighted in the leaks of classified information by former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden. Two U.S. officials said one analyst was disciplined in years past for using NSA resources to track a former spouse. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

According to Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA), who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, the deliberate abuses have come at an average clip of only one per year -- at least among the documented cases.  The agency says it takes a "zero tolerance" approach in handling these incidents, although the nature of the sanctions imposed on violators remains hazy.  The Senate panel was briefed on the rare cases of purposefully illegal surveillance last week; Feinstein says she initially learned of the NSA violations through the media.  According to the Wall Street Journal, the majority of these infrequent intentional abuses have arisen from the age-old human weaknesses of sex and jealousy:

National Security Agency officers on several occasions have channeled their agency’s enormous eavesdropping power to spy on love interests, U.S. officials said. The practice isn’t frequent — one official estimated a handful of cases in the last decade — but it’s common enough to garner its own spycraft label: LOVEINT.  Spy agencies often refer to their various types of intelligence collection with the suffix of “INT,” such as “SIGINT” for collecting signals intelligence, or communications; and “HUMINT” for human intelligence, or spying. The “LOVEINT” examples constitute most episodes of willful misconduct by NSA employees, officials said. In the wake of revelations last week that NSA had violated privacy rules on nearly 3,000 occasions in a one-year period, NSA Chief Compliance Officer John DeLong emphasized in a conference call with reporters last week that those errors were unintentional. He did say that there have been “a couple” of willful violations in the past decade. He said he didn’t have the exact figures at the moment.

So unless you're the estranged spouse or schoolyard crush of an NSA agent, you're probably fine.  Terrific.  The obvious concern here is that these enormous snooping powers could potentially be harnessed by a government employee -- or, frankly, a government apparatus -- with more wide-ranging and sinister intentions.  This underscores the importance of safeguards to ensure strong oversight.  Episodes like this do not inspire confidence.  Then again, while 56,000 erroneously monitored emails per year may sound like a disturbingly high number, it actually represents an infinitesimally small fraction of total online domestic transactions.  At the very least, it appears as though the NSA keeps an eye out for inappropriate surveillance.  (Though we wouldn't have known about any of this, absent Edward Snowden's revelations and a successful transparency lawsuit).  Agency spokesmen say the few individuals who are caught breaking the rules are disciplined -- which is more than can be said vis-a-vis the IRS' misuse of private tax records.  In fact, Eric Holder's Justice Department has declined to prosecute at least one case case in which a political candidate's data was deliberately violated.  Holder evidently has more important things to do, like harassing Texas over its voter ID law and attempt to derail school choice in Louisiana over largely obsolete racial considerations. 

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