The National Security Agency broke privacy rules or overstepped legal authority thousands of times each year over the last five years, including unauthorized surveillance of Americans as well as foreign intelligence, The Washington Post reported Friday morning.
The Post reports that most of the incidents involved unauthorized surveillance of U.S. citizens or of foreign intelligence targets in the United States. They occurred thousands of times each year over the last five years, after the agency was given broad new powers in 2008.
The information, an internal audit by the agency dated May 2012, was given to the newspaper by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who has been accused of leaking information to U.S. and British newspapers.
The agency decided in one instance that it did not need to report any unintended surveillance of Americans.
About a quarter of the incidents are are considered operator or computer error, the Post reported. In one case, a large number of phone calls placed from Washington were intercepted after a computer programming error led to systems reading phone calls beginning with "202," the area code for Washington, D.C., as "20," the country code for Egypt.
The agency's director of compliance said in a statement to NBC News that employees are encouraged to report any mistakes, and that leaders take reports of mistakes or wrongdoing very seriously.
The White House press office issued this statement Friday evening:
President Obama has long advocated greater transparency, stronger oversight and other reforms to give Americans confidence that our intelligence programs strike the right balance between protecting our national security and the privacy of our citizens. This Administration is committed to ensuring that privacy protections are carefully adhered to, and to continually reviewing ways to effectively enhance privacy procedures. The NSA documents being reported on today reflect work by NSA's Compliance Office - an Office established in 2009 to ensure rigorous monitoring, detection, reporting and mitigation for compliance incidents specifically related to the protection of privacy rights. As Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Feinstein has said today, the Committee has never identified an instance in which the NSA has intentionally abused its authority to conduct surveillance for inappropriate purposes not identified willful violations of the law; rather, the majority of the compliance incidents are unintentional. The documents demonstrate that the NSA is monitoring, detecting, addressing and reporting compliance incidents. We have been keeping the Congress appropriately informed of compliance issues as they arise and look forward to working with members in both parties on additional reforms that would further improve oversight and strengthen public confidence in these operations that are so critical to American national security.
Snowden worked at NSA contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. Earlier this year, the Post and the British newspaper The Guardian published a series of stories based on information provided by Snowden; the articles said the NSA had intercepted a broad swath of phone calls and internet traffic, including that of American citizens.
Snowden has been charged with espionage and theft of government property. He is currently living under temporary asylum in Russia.