President Obama in a press conference last week outlined a slew of reforms intended to increase the transparency of the National Security Agency's surveillance programs, all the while suggesting that even without the reforms, the programs have safeguards that "prevent abuse."
But a new report from the Washington Post, based on leaked documents by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, call into question just how frequently "abuse" of these programs happen, and how much Congress knows about it. It details thousands of instances in which the NSA allegedly violated privacy or overstepped its bounds, according to internal audits that are not shared with Congress.
The two accounts, Obama's and the Washington Post's, come one week apart and their apparently contradictory conclusions leave more questions than answers.
Already members of Congress in the president's own party are expressing concern about the Posts' report.
"Press reports that the National Security Agency broke privacy rules thousands of times per year and reportedly sought to shield required disclosure of privacy violations are extremely disturbing," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., noting that instances of non-compliance are required by law to be reported to Congress.
We'll let you be the judge:Obama:
Well, the fact that I said that the programs are operating in a way that prevents abuse, that continues to be true, without the reforms.Washington Post :
The NSA audit obtained by The Post, dated May 2012, counted 2,776 incidents in the preceding 12 months of unauthorized collection, storage, access to or distribution of legally protected communications. Most were unintended. Many involved failures of due diligence or violations of standard operating procedure. The most serious incidents included a violation of a court order and unauthorized use of data about more than 3,000 Americans and green-card holders.Obama:
I've taken steps to make sure they have strong oversight by all three branches of government and clear safeguards to prevent abuse and protect the rights of the American people.Washington Post:
Generally, the NSA reveals nothing in public about its errors and infractions. The unclassified versions of the administration's semiannual reports to Congress feature blacked-out pages under the headline "Statistical Data Relating to Compliance Incidents."
Members of Congress may read the unredacted documents, but only in a special secure room, and they are not allowed to take notes. Fewer than 10 percent of lawmakers employ a staff member who has the security clearance to read the reports and provide advice about their meaning and significance.Obama:
And 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 listening in on people's phone calls or inappropriately reading people's emails.Washington Post:
There is no reliable way to calculate from the number of recorded compliance issues how many Americans have had their communications improperly collected, stored or distributed by the NSA.
The causes and severity of NSA infractions vary widely. One in 10 incidents is attributed to a typographical error in which an analyst enters an incorrect query and retrieves data about U.S phone calls or e-mails.
But the more serious lapses include unauthorized access to intercepted communications, the distribution of protected content and the use of automated systems without built-in safeguards to prevent unlawful surveillance.Obama:
…a general impression has, I think, taken hold not only among the American public but also around the world that somehow we're out there willy-nilly just sucking in information on everybody and doing what we please with it.Washington Post:
The operation to obtain what the agency called "multiple communications transactions" collected and commingled U.S. and foreign e-mails, according to an article in SSO News, a top-secret internal newsletter of the NSA's Special Source Operations unit. NSA lawyers told the court that the agency could not practicably filter out the communications of Americans.
In October 2011, months after the program got underway, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court ruled that the collection effort was unconstitutional. The court said that the methods used were "deficient on statutory and constitutional grounds," according to a top-secret summary of the opinion, and it ordered the NSA to comply with standard privacy protections or stop the program.