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Senator calls for hearing on NSA privacy complaints

Aug. 19, 2013 - 08:59AM   |  
By DAVID JACKSON   |   Comments

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee said Friday he will call a hearing on reports that National Security Agency analysts have broken privacy rules thousands of times.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said, “I remain concerned that we are still not getting straightforward answers from the NSA.”

He added: “Using advanced surveillance technologies in secret demands close oversight and appropriate checks and balances, and the American people deserve no less than that.”

The NSA, meanwhile, said Friday it encourages employees to report potential violations, and that problems are addressed.

“We take each report seriously, investigate the matter, address the issue, constantly look for trends, and address them as well — all as a part of NSA’s internal oversight and compliance efforts,” said a statement from John DeLong, NSA’s director of compliance.

The Washington Post, using documents provided by NSA leaker Edward Snowden, reported Friday that the NSA “has broken privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times each year since Congress granted the agency broad new powers in 2008.”

The Post said the violations “range from significant violations of law to typographical errors that resulted in unintended interception of U.S. e-mails and telephone calls.”

The Post also reported:

“In one instance, the NSA decided that it need not report the unintended surveillance of Americans. A notable example in 2008 was the interception of a ‘large number’ of calls placed from Washington when a programming error confused the U.S. area code 202 for 20, the international dialing code for Egypt, according to a “quality assurance” review that was not distributed to the NSA’s oversight staff.

“In another case, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which has authority over some NSA operations, did not learn about a new collection method until it had been in operation for many months. The court ruled it unconstitutional.”

In a separate statement, the NSA said its “foreign intelligence collection activities are continually audited and overseen internally and externally. When we make a mistake in carrying out our foreign intelligence mission, we report the issue internally and to federal overseers and aggressively get to the bottom of it.”

DeLong of the NSA said, “We want people to report if they have made a mistake or even if they believe that an NSA activity is not consistent with the rules,” and that the NSA has set up an “internal privacy compliance program.”

“They manage NSA’s rules, train personnel, develop and implement technical safeguards, and set up systems to continually monitor and guide NSA’s activities,” DeLong said. “We take this work very seriously.”

President Obama has defended the NSA surveillance programs as necessary for counter-terrorism, but said last week he supports changes to build public confidence in the government’s efforts.

One proposal: a privacy advocate to argue cases before the special court that oversees NSA activities under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

Obama has also appointed a special commission of experts to report by the end of the year “so that we can move forward with a better understanding of how these programs impact our security, our privacy, and our foreign policy.”

Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Mark Udall, D-Colo., members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, issued a statement urging the administration to release more information to the public “as part of the honest, public debate of surveillance authorities that the Administration has said it is interested in having.”

Americans, they said, need to know the new revelations are “just the tip of a larger iceberg.”

They also stressed what they see as the need for a privacy advocate “who could participate in significant cases before the (FISA) Court and evaluate and counter government assertions.”

Several lawmakers called for closer scrutiny by Congress. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said that Congress “must conduct rigorous oversight to ensure that all incidents of non-compliance are reported to the oversight committees and the FISA court in a timely and comprehensive manner, and that appropriate steps are taken to ensure violations are not repeated.”

David Jackson writes for USA TODAY.

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