The Washington Post is reporting that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been violating privacy rules and overstepping it’s legal authority for years. After an internal audit and information from top secret documents, it was found that since Congress broadened the powers of the NSA in 2008, that the agency has been involved in thousands of unauthorized surveillance of Americans and foreign targets inside the U.S.

Washington Post Graphic

Documents that were obtained by the Post, provided by the former contractor, Edward Snowden, provided information and data that shows the NSA has been illegally monitoring emails and phone calls. Some through intentional acts and others as a result of typographical errors.

The Obama administration has provided little information about the NSA’s record on compliance within the law. Even though it has been said that there will be a transparency on the administrations part, especially relating to the NSA, it has yet to do so. In June, after making a promise to explain the NSA’s record, Deputy Attorney General, James Cole said in his congressional testimony, they would explain the NSA’s record in “as transparent a way as we possibly can. Every now and then, there may be a mistake.”

One of these “mistakes”, took months to uncover. A new collection method was put in place but the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which is the authority over the NSA, didn’t find out about it for months. When they found out, they ruled it was unconstitutional.

In an audit obtained by the Post, from May 2012, they found that there were 2,776 incidents in the previous 12 months, of unauthorized collection of data. Most of these were unintentional, many involved the violation of standard operating procedures and others were as a result of failure of due diligence. One of the more serious incidents, was the violation of a court order and unauthorized use of data on more than 3,000 Americans and green card holders.

The Post said “there is no reliable way to calculate from the number of recorded compliance issues, how many Americans had their communications improperly collected, store or distributed by the NSA.” 1 in 10 incidents are attributed to typographical errors, which an analyst has entered an incorrect query.

The more serious events, include unauthorized access to intercepted communications, distribution of protected content and the use of automated systems without built-in safeguards to prevent the unauthorized surveillance. The May audit only included the Ft. Meade headquarters and surrounding facilities in the D.C. area. If it included all of the NSA’s facilities, the numbers would be much higher, according to officials speaking condition of anonymity.

In 2009 there were significant violations uncovered and the NSA’s oversight staff was quadrupled. The infractions have continued to rise through 2011 and early into 2012. The NSA refused to comment on whether the trend has continued presently.

The NSA Director, James Clapper Jr., acknowledged that the Surveillance court had found that the Agency had breached the 4th Amendment. The Obama administration has continued to fight a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, seeking the opinion. The Agency, usually reveals nothing on public record relating to it’s errors and infractions. The semi-annual reports provided to Congress are unclassified and contain redacted pages under “Statistical Data Relating to Compliance Incidents.”

The Agency uses the term “incidental” when it sweeps up records of an American while targeting a foreigner or a U.S. person who is believed to be involved in terrorism. Official guidelines for Agency personnel say, that kind of incident, “does not constitute a…violation and does not have to be reported.”