The NSA Oversteps Its Legal Authority and the Court Can't Stop It

The Washington Post dropped two reports that exposes the recklessness of the NSA's spying program. The first report is insane: the NSA has "broken privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority" thousands of times a year and the second report explains the insanity: the FISC court that's supposed to be in charge of government spying programs has said that "its ability do so is limited and that it must trust the government" to report when the government has screwed up.

Basically, the NSA gets to do whatever it wants and no one can really check it. An internal audit revealed that the NSA overstepped its bounds 2,776 times in the past year. According to the Washington Post, who got their hands on the internal NSA audit along with other documents, most of those infractions deal with "unauthorized surveillance of Americans or foreign intelligence targets in the United States" which include mistakes like:

  • Intercepting a large number of calls from Washington when someone confused the US area code 202 for 20, the international dialing code for Egypt
  • Starting a new collection method without noticing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court until it was in operation (it was later ruled unconstitutional)
  • Violating a court order to obtain data of more than 3,000 Americans and green card holders.

The NSA Oversteps Its Legal Authority and the Court Can't Stop It

Some of these mistakes could possible be due to typical human error but the sum total of all these screw ups reveal a serious lapse in judgment and in respect when dealing with the fact that, well, you are invading people's privacy when you spying on people. Where are the checks and balances? Where is the process? Can it be that easy to make a mistake? Combining the scope of the spying program with the scope of the NSA's mistakes is definitely worrying.

And somehow, it gets worse. The chief judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court says the court can't even verify how often the NSA breaks the rules and figure out if these instances of rule breaking are even unintentional. US District Judge Reggie Walton told the Post:

The FISC does not have the capacity to investigate issues of noncompliance, and in that respect the FISC is in the same position as any other court when it comes to enforcing [government] compliance with its orders.

That's not good news, considering how President Obama said that federal judges were in place to "look over our shoulder". It looks like the government has created a monster that no one can actually control. [Washington Post, Washington Post]