NSA illegally gorged on U.S. phone records for three years

Wired reports: What happens when a secret U.S. court allows the National Security Agency access to a massive pipeline of U.S. phone call metadata, along with strict rules on how the spy agency can use the information?

The NSA promptly violated those rules — “since the earliest days” of the program’s 2006 inception — carrying out thousands of inquiries on phone numbers without any of the court-ordered screening designed to protect Americans from illegal government surveillance.

The violations continued for three years, until they were uncovered by an internal review, and the NSA found itself fighting to keep the spy program alive.

That’s the lesson from hundreds of pages of formerly top secret documents from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, released today by the Obama administration in response to a successful Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

“Incredibly, intelligence officials said today that no one at the NSA fully understood how its own surveillance system worked at the time so they could not adequately explain it to the court,” says EFF activist Trevor Timm. “This is a breathtaking admission — the NSA’s surveillance apparatus, for years, was so complex and compartmentalized that no single person could comprehend it.”

Intelligence Director James Clapper, in a blog post today, blamed the unlawful spying in part on “the complexity of the technology employed in connection with the bulk telephony metadata collection program,” and said it was not done deliberately.

But the secret surveillance court, set up in 1978 to oversee intelligence-gathering activities, didn’t see it that way. In 2009, in response to the government telling the court that it was searching call records without “reasonable articulable suspicion” or RAS, the court said the government’s explanation “strains credulity.” [Continue reading…]

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