Two US senators on the intelligence committee said on Friday that thousands of annual violations by the National Security Agency on its own restrictions were “the tip of the iceberg.”
“The executive branch has now confirmed that the rules, regulations and court-imposed standards for protecting the privacy of Americans’ have been violated thousands of times each year,” said senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, two leading critics of bulk surveillance, who responded Friday to a Washington Post story based on documents provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden.
“We have previously said that the violations of these laws and rules were more serious than had been acknowledged, and we believe Americans should know that this confirmation is just the tip of a larger iceberg.”
On July 31, Wyden, backed by Udall, vaguely warned other senators in a floor speech that the NSA and the director of national intelligence were substantively misleading legislators by describing improperly collected data as a matter of innocent and anodyne human or technical errors.
In keeping with their typically cautious pattern when discussing classified information, Wyden and Udall did not provide details about their claimed “iceberg” of surveillance malfeasance. But they hinted that the public still lacks an adequate understanding of the NSA’s powers to collect data on Americans under its controversial interpretation of the Patriot Act.
“We believe the public deserves to know more about the violations of the secret court orders that have authorized the bulk collection of Americans’ phone and email records under the Patriot Act,” Wyden and Udall said.
“The public should also be told more about why the Fisa court has said that the executive branch’s implementation of section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act has circumvented the spirit of the law, particularly since the executive branch has declined to address this concern.”
In October 2011, the Fisa court secretly ruled that an NSA collection effort violated the fourth amendment, a fact first disclosed last year by Wyden. The Post disclosed the effort involved diverting international communications via fiberoptic cables inside the US into a “repository.”
Shortly before Wyden and Udall hinted at even broader NSA violations of its surveillance authorities, the chairwoman of the Senate intelligence committee came to the NSA’s defense.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, said the majority of “compliance incidents” are “unintentional and do not involve any inappropriate surveillance of Americans.”
“The large majority of NSA’s so-called ‘compliance incidents’ are called ‘roaming’ incidents, in which the NSA is collecting the phone or electronic communications of a non-American outside the United States, and that person then enters the United States,” Feinstein said.
“The NSA generally won’t know that the person has traveled to the United States. As the laws and rules governing NSA surveillance require different procedures once someone enters the U.S.—generally to require a specific FISA court order—NSA will cite this as a ‘compliance incident,’ and either cease the surveillance or obtain the required FISA court order.”
Feinstein’s counterpart in the House of Representatives, Mike Rogers of Michigan, issued a similar defense of the NSA.
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