The National Security Agency violated legal restrictions or privacy rules at least 2,776 times in the 12 months before May 2012, an internal audit found.
"In just a single one of those 2,776 incidents, 3,000 people had their rights violated," noted Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic magazine.
The audit was only of collections made at NSA headquarters at Fort Meade, Md., and other NSA facilities in the Washington D.C. metro area.
"Three government officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified matters, said the number would be substantially higher if it included other NSA operating units and regional collection centers," said the Washington Post's Barton Gellman, who broke the story Aug. 15.
In at least one instance, the NSA did not report a violation when it was discovered, as the law requires. In another, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court was kept in the dark for months about a new collection method.
When informed as many as 56,000 emails from Americans who have no connection to terrorism were collected, the FISA court ruled it was unconstitutional. The presiding judge admonished the NSA for a "substantial misrepresentation" of the scope of its surveillance.
The NSA can surveil about 75 percent of U.S. telecommunications, the Wall Street Journal reported Aug. 20.
This includes the content of emails as well as telephone "metadata" (phone numbers called, duration of each call, the location of the phone initiating the call).
Knowing to whom an individual speaks, when, and for how long can tell a lot about a person and his or her social network, says the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
"The administration has collected the details of every call made by every American, even though the overwhelming majority of these calls have nothing to do with terrorism," said Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.
This "gross invasion of privacy" isn't what he had in mind when he co-authored the Patriot Act, Mr. Sensenbrenner said.
Section 215 authorizes collection of phone records "when there are reasonable grounds to believe that the records are relevant to a (FISA court) authorized investigation into international terrorism," he said. The indiscriminate collection of data on Americans is at odds with the plain meaning of the word "relevance" and the intent of the law.
The massive data sweeps are vital to protecting Americans from terrorism, senior officials say.
The FISA court can't ensure NSA is obeying the law because "the FISC is forced to rely upon the accuracy of the information that is provided to the Court," the current presiding judge said in an op-ed in the Washington Post Aug. 16.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, didn't learn about the internal NSA audit until she read Mr. Gellman's story.
There have been "zero privacy violations" by the NSA, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., asserted during a debate over an amendment to restrict the NSA's authority to collect telephone "metadata" on U.S. citizens. After Mr. Gelman's story was published, he amended that to say: "there was no intentional or willful violation of the law."
I assume Mr. Rogers was telling what he believed to be the truth when he made his first statement. If so, congressional oversight committees have been kept as much in the dark as has the FISA court.
"They tell Congress what they want to tell them," the National Review's John Fund says he was told by a veteran intelligence official. "Mike Rogers and Dianne Feinstein don't know what they don't know about the programs."
So we have only the word of senior officials that violations of the law are infrequent, inadvertent, and pose no threat to civil liberties.
Their word hasn't been very good. Both James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, and NSA Director Keith Alexander have lied to Congress about the scope of surveillance. NSA analysts intentionally violated the law multiple times, Bloomberg News reported Friday.
"It's hard to believe that these programs could never be abused when everybody in charge of them keeps lying to us," said Jim Geraghty of National Review, who suspects NSA stands for "Never Straight Answers."
Some things must be kept secret. But when those who guard us from threats abroad wield power in secret without accountability, they may pose the greater threat to our liberty.
Jack Kelly is a columnist for The Press and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio. firstname.lastname@example.org, 412 263-1476.jackkelly