The U.S. government has released proof that it repeatedly spied on American citizens without being allowed to... and you probably missed it. The National Security Administration finally dumped a heap of redacted documents revealing the surveillance violations made over the last decade. Hooray for transparency! Of course, it released them midday on Christmas Eve, when basically no one would be paying attention to the internet or in the mood to think about unchecked government snooping for at least the next 30 hours.
But, here it is, a collection of all the violations reported to the president's Intelligence Oversight Board between 2001 and 2013, which the NSA declassified and made public after an ACLU lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act forced its hand.
The heavy redacted documents show a mix of surveillance cockups, most of which the agency blames on technical errors or human mistakes, like when an agent accidentally queries the wrong term or fudges the target's name. Or, as happened several times, private communication data was sent to a recipient not authorised to receive it (and subsequently deleted) or insecurely stored and then accessed after it was supposed to be destroyed, as reported Bloomberg.
Which, yeah, in 10 years of routinely siphoning up millions of people's web and phone communications, there are bound to be some mistakes. But we all know it's not that innocent. The NSA fully admits that several of the violations (12 that it owns up to) were intentional — the agency blatantly ignored the law. Such as when, to name a familiar example, NSA agents used their snooping powers to spy on their spouses or ex-girlfriends.
Other errors were more nuanced, and it reveals the extent of the agency's overreach. Like when a broad query (overly broad queries are supposed to be prohibited) inadvertently sweeps up American citizens' personal data even though agents were targeting a foreigner. This is not uncommon — an NSA investigation found 9 out of 10 intercepted messages sitting in government databases are from regular citizens, not targets.
The way the oversight process works now, the NSA is essentially off the hook for these violations so long as it reports them to the board during regularly scheduled reviews. The agency points to this built-in transparency as a sign it's taking compliance seriously: "NSA accounts for all identified errors and violations, no matter how slight, in its oversight reporting process," it wrote in a summary accompanying the documents.
Gold star for the NSA. But, that logic doesn't do much or really anything to keep the intrusive surveillance programs in check. And though the post-Snowden uproar over government snooping and online privacy has prompted several calls for better oversight of the sprawling intelligence community, little has been done to curb the agency's broad and largely unchecked powers to spy on Americans. Which, if the Christmas Eve surprise is any indication, the NSA knows all too well.