Future Tense

Obama Was Wrong: NSA Employees Have Deliberately “Abused” Their Power

Gen. Keith Alexander, c director of the National Security Agency, speaks at the International Cyber Symposium in Baltimore, Md.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

In recent weeks, government officials have insisted that Americans need not worry about NSA surveillance because there are no cases of the system being wilfully abused. But new details have emerged showing these assurances to be blatantly false—in yet another twist that is sure to undermine trust in the NSA oversight regime.

On Friday, Bloomberg reported that NSA analysts have “deliberately ignored restrictions on their authority to spy on Americans multiple times in the past decade.” According to Bloomberg, an average of one case of intentional abuse per year has been documented in internal reports. Given that the NSA intercepts billions of communications weekly, the number of reported deliberate abuses is small. However, that there are any documented cases at all is highly significant because of how this contradicts statements made by both current and former senior officials in the aftermath of a series of stories about vast NSA spy programs based on leaked secret documents.

NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander claimed at a New York cybersecurity conference earlier this month that “no one has wilfully or knowingly disobeyed the law or tried to invade your civil liberties or privacy.” A similar statement was made by the head of the Senate intelligence committee tasked with conducting oversight of the NSA. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said on Aug. 16 that the committee had “never identified an instance in which the NSA has intentionally abused its authority to conduct surveillance for inappropriate purposes.”

In an Aug. 9 news conference, President Obama stated, too, that abuse had not been occurring. “All the stories that have been written, what you’re not reading about is the government actually abusing these programs and listening in on people’s phone calls or inappropriately reading people’s emails,” Obama said. Two days later, this statement was enthusiastically reiterated by former NSA chief Gen. Michael Hayden, who appeared on Face of the Nation. “There have been no abuses under him [President Obama] or under his predecessor [President Bush],” Hayden insisted.

According to the Bloomberg report, the violations concerned 1981 Executive Order 12333, issued by President Ronald Reagan, which governs U.S. intelligence operations. An anonymous official attributed the abuses to “overzealous NSA employees or contractors” eager to prevent another 9/11 attack.

Whatever the reason for the breaches, the development will not reassure the public that the NSA is operating with sufficient oversight. Since the first secret documents on NSA spying were revealed in June, senior officials have been clamouring to win back the trust of the public. But in the process, they have repeatedly made factually inaccurate and disingenuous statements—whether due to incompetence or complicity—which will only further erode confidence in the current system and fuel desire for comprehensive reform.

Last week, a Washington Post scoop revealed how the NSA had committed more than 2,700 privacy violations involving surveillance of Americans and foreigners over a one-year period. And a 2011 secret court opinion declassified on Wednesday showed how the agency unlawfully collected tens of thousands of Americans’ electronic communications, misleading the secret surveillance court about the scope of major monitoring programs three times in three years.

Update, Aug. 24, 2013: Some of the cases of NSA officers intentionally abusing their spy powers has involved snooping on love interests, the Wall Street Journal reports. The practice is not frequent, officials claim, but is common enough that has acquired its own internal name: LOVEINT, or love intelligence. Spy agencies often use the suffix “INT” to refer to intelligence gathering methods, such as HUMINT (human intelligence), OSINT (open source intelligence) and SIGINT (signals intelligence).