staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project.
The Washington Post has revealed the National Security Agency has broken privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times each year since Congress granted the agency broad new powers in 2008. According to an NSA audit from May 2012 leaked by Edward Snowden, there were 2,776 incidents in the preceding 12 months of unauthorized collection, storage, access to or distribution of legally protected communications. In one case, the NSA intercepted a "large number" of calls placed from Washington when a programming error confused the U.S. area code 202 for 20, the international dialing code for Egypt. The audit only counted violations committed at the NSA’s Fort Meade headquarters and other facilities in the Washington area. We speak to Alex Abdo of the American Civil Liberties Union.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The Washington Post has revealed the National Security Agency has broken privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times each year since Congress granted the agency broad new powers in 2008. According to an NSA audit from May 2012 leaked by Edward Snowden, there were 2,776 incidents in the preceding 12 months of unauthorized collection, storage, access to or distribution of legally protected communications. The audit only counted violations committed at the NSA’s Fort Meade headquarters and other facilities in the Washington area.
Most of the infractions involve unauthorized surveillance of Americans or foreign intelligence targets in the United States. In one case, the NSA intercepted a, quote, "large number" of calls placed from Washington when a programming error confused the U.S. area code 202 for 20, the international dialing code for Egypt.
The report comes out less than a week after President Obama told reporters abuses have not been committed at the NSA.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 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, you know, listening in on people’s phone calls or inappropriately reading people’s emails. What you’re hearing about is the prospect that these could be abused. Now, part of the reason they’re not abused is because these checks are in place, and those abuses would be against the law and would be against the orders of the FISC.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Well, meanwhile, The Washington Post has also published a rare public comment from the chief judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton. He said the court lacks the tools to independently verify how often government surveillance breaks rules that protect Americans’ privacy. The NSA responded in a statement that read in part, quote, "We’re a human-run agency operating in a complex environment with a number of different regulatory regimes, so at times we find ourselves on the wrong side of the line."
For more, we’re joined by Alex Abdo, staff attorney at the National Security Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.
The response of the NSA?
ALEX ABDO: It’s truly shocking that the NSA is violating these surveillance laws thousands of times every year—effectively, about seven times a day—in part because these laws are extraordinarily permissive. These aren’t laws that impose meaningful constrictions on the NSA. They essentially allow the NSA to collect vast quantities of information about Americans’ communications inside the United States and as we communicate internationally. So the fact that they’re violating these very permissive laws is truly shocking.
But I think, even more fundamentally, the disclosures really undermine the intelligence community’s primary defense of these programs, which is that they are heavily regulated and overseen. We now know that that’s simply not true. Congress has not been able to effectively oversee the NSA’s surveillance machinery. Now we know that the FISA court, the secret court that’s charged with overseeing the NSA, is not able to and, in its own words, doesn’t think it has the capacity to effectively oversee the NSA. So, for all of these years, the government has been claiming this is a regulated surveillance complex, and in fact the fox has been guarding the hen house for far too long, and it needs to stop.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, but even with these revelations, government officials seem to indicate that these are not deliberate violations but inadvertent problems in terms of how they’re gathering and sifting data, and that they’re relatively small compared to the huge volume of what they’re actually doing. Do you buy that argument?
ALEX ABDO: Well, the NSA has, for the past months in defending these programs, used word games when it talks about the consequences of these policies for Americans’ privacy. They use words like "targeted," "incidental" and "inadvertent" to really obscure what’s going on. And the fact of the matter is that these laws allow the government to listen in on Americans’ phone calls and to read Americans’ emails in an extraordinary number of circumstances, and the government has not been forthcoming about that authority, and they’re not being forthcoming now when they suggest that these violations are minimal. These are thousands of violations every year, and each violation could affect hundreds or even thousands of Americans. But we still don’t have the basic facts to have that debate.
AMY GOODMAN: And just that significance of the error, 202—they’re supposed to be monitoring 20, Egypt, and they’re monitoring 202. They say it was just a clerical error. What does that mean?
ALEX ABDO: That means that thousands of calls made in D.C. were swept up into an NSA database, when the NSA was supposed to have been targeting Egypt abroad.
AMY GOODMAN: And did they get purged?
ALEX ABDO: We don’t know enough about that story yet, and that’s a big part of the problem, is that there’s still not enough transparency. The public debate we’re having now is incredible, and it was instigated by—you know, by a whistleblower’s leaks. But the fact that we had to wait for those leaks to have this conversation is problematic.
AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton, the judge with the—the chief judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, saying, we have to rely on the accuracy of the information that’s provided to us by the court, so—provided to us by the NSA?
ALEX ABDO: That’s exactly right. We’re letting the NSA police itself, and now we know the consequences are that there are thousands of abuses each year that affect untold number of Americans. But if you look back at what the government told the Supreme Court last year, they were defending the law that allows it to engage in this sort of dragnet surveillance of our international communications. And the primary defense of the government was, don’t worry about the NSA, the secret court in Washington is protecting the right to privacy of the countless Americans in the country. And now we have the court itself saying that it doesn’t have the capacity to review the government’s claims that it’s abiding by the law. That’s a truly shocking revelation.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, of course, these more than 2,000 mistakes that the audit found are only in the Washington, D.C., area, where NSA is working, and people like Edward Snowden were working in Hawaii as a contractor for the NSA, so other parts of the NSA that were not in the Washington area are not even included in this audit.
ALEX ABDO: Absolutely. We still don’t know the full extent of the abuses of the NSA of these very permissive laws. They have a number of listening facilities. The number could be significantly higher. And even more importantly, each one of the incidents doesn’t just relate to a single person. One incident, for example, was the sweeping in of D.C. communications instead of Egypt communications, affecting potentially thousands of people. So the number could be much, much higher, but we still need more disclosures from the government. If the administration truly welcomes this debate, it needs to give the public the facts it needs to have the debate.
AMY GOODMAN: According to The New York Times, Alex, the NSA is searching the content of virtually every email that comes into or goes out of the United States without a warrant. You’ve written about this.
ALEX ABDO: That’s exactly right. The law that Congress passed in 2008 gives the government essentially unfettered authority to read and listen to our international communications. Now we know they’re doing it with a dragnet by literally sifting through every single email that goes into or out of the country. You simply don’t need that sort of authority to defend America. The government should be targeting terrorists, targeting wrongdoers, not indiscriminately surveilling Americans inside the country.
AMY GOODMAN: And the news yesterday, that wasn’t clear if it was true, that General—that Clapper, James Clapper, who we know lied to Congress on this issue, would be the one that President Obama would put in charge of the review of the NSA?
ALEX ABDO: That’s right. The president promised an independent review of the NSA’s surveillance activities, and news broke that the director of national intelligence might be the one overseeing that review. That would be to add insult to injury. The review needs to be independent. We need Congress to get involved, too, to have a full and meaningful review of these disclosures and their consequences for millions of Americans. And that can’t happen when we allow the NSA to police itself.
AMY GOODMAN: ACLU representing Edward Snowden?
ALEX ABDO: I can’t comment on that. We are coordinating his legal defense within the country, but I can’t say any more than that.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much, Alex Abdo, for joining us, staff attorney at the National Security Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.
When we come back, we’ll be joined by Democracy Now!'s Sharif Abdel Kouddous in Cairo, and we'll be joined by P.J. Crowley, the former State Department spokesperson for President Obama. Stay with us.