A leaked internal audit of the US’National Security Agency (NSA) has reportedly shown that it broke privacy rules and overstepped its legal authority thousands of times a year.
Documents given to the Washington Post by fugitive intelligence services contractor Edward Snowden purport to show that the agency spied on the communications of both American citizens and foreigners on US soil when it had no legal right to do so.
The most serious violations involved the unauthorised collection of data about thousands of calls and emails straight from a fibre-optic cable – an interception method deemed unconstitutional by the courts under search and seizure laws.
The NSA was given new powers in 2008 on the condition that it submitted regular reports to the US Justice Department, yet in another of the leaked audit documents it is claimed that agency personnel were instructed to remove details and use more generic language when submitting information to be checked.
Some of the infractions showed a basic lack of necessary safeguards, the audit said, while many of them involved an analyst simply entering a typing error, resulting in the unauthorised collection of thousands of items of personal data.
In all, the NSA audit obtained by the newspaper, dated May 2012, counted 2,776 incidents in the preceding 12 months of unauthorised collection, storage, access to or distribution of legally protected communications.
The Washington Post cited an example from 2008 of the interception of a “large number” of calls placed from Washington when a programming error confused US area code 202 for 20, the international dialling code for Egypt.
In a statement to the newspaper, the NSA said it attempts to identify problems “at the earliest possible moment, implement mitigation measures wherever possible and drive the numbers down”.
“We're a human-run agency operating in a complex environment with a number of different regulatory regimes, so at times we find ourselves on the wrong side of the line,” a senior NSA official said, speaking with White House permission on the condition of anonymity.
The Washington Post published a selection of the documents on its website, after it had informed the government that it was going to do so.
They were provided by former NSA contractor Mr Snowden, who has leaked other top secret information in the past to both the British and US media, and who has been granted a year’s asylum in Russia.