WASHINGTON - The National Security Agency reported its own violations of surveillance rules to a U.S. intelligence court and promised additional safety measures to prevent similar missteps over and over again, according to more than 1,000 pages of newly declassified files about the U.S. government's controversial program of collecting every American's phone records during the past seven years.
The Obama administration published the heavily censored files Monday night as part of an ongoing civil liberties lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the government's collection of phone records, which the White House has said is important to countering terrorism.
In the new disclosures, some files were declassified ostensibly to show that even when NSA employees collected records improperly or improperly shared material among themselves, those problems were reported to the intelligence court and new procedures were put in place to prevent them from happening again.
Similar documents about the U.S. collecting phone records were previously declassified and published, and the Obama administration has revealed others to convince Congress to allow it to continue collecting the phone records.
After the NSA began the program in 2006, one NSA inspector general's report said rules already in place were "adequate" and "in several aspects exceed the terms" of what the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court had required. But it recommended three additional practices be formally adopted. These included such obvious ideas as not allowing analysts who searched phone records in the terror database also to approve which numbers can be searched, and periodically checking the phone numbers that analysts searched to make sure they had actually been approved.
Despite the assurances in 2006 that rules were adequate, problems surfaced in 2009 that were so serious that the intelligence court temporarily shut down the surveillance program.
The documents included training materials for NSA analysts, who were warned that they should only search the database of all phone records for numbers they suspected were associated with terrorists: "Analysts are NOT free to use a telephone selector based on a hunch or guess," according to a 2007 training presentation. It added that the NSA's legal standard for picking a phone number for a terror suspect required "some minimal level of objective justification."
The training slides noted that the government shouldn't snoop on the phone records of Americans whose only suspicious behaviors were protected by the First Amendment, such as speaking or writing in opposition to the U.S. government, worshipping at a mosque or working as a journalist.