Future Tense

How NSA Spies Abused Their Powers to Snoop on Girlfriends, Lovers, and First Dates

National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The role of the National Security Agency is supposed to be to root out terrorists. But it turns out that the agency’s spies have repeatedly abused their surveillance powers to secretly eavesdrop on the conversations of their love interests.

Late Thursday, details about the illegal snooping were released for the first time in a letter sent by the NSA’s inspector general to Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa. Grassley had asked for details about intentional NSA abuse of its authority following government officials’ acknowledgement in August that there had been “a couple” of willful violations in the past decade. It was previously reported that some of these cases involved snooping on partners or spouses, known internally as “LOVEINT,” for “Love Intelligence.”

The letter sent to Grassley reveals that there have been at least 12 recorded cases of spies abusing their powers since 2003, with several of these cases involving LOVINT. In 2011, one NSA employee working at an overseas base spied on the calls of her foreign boyfriend and other foreigners she met socially because she wanted to find out if they were “shady characters.” In 2004, an NSA spy monitored the calls of a foreign number she found in her husband’s cellphone because she suspected he had been unfaithful. In 2003, an NSA employee was internally investigated after a woman with whom he had a sexual relationship reported him to the government because she suspected he was monitoring her calls. An investigation revealed that over a period of five years, the employee had unlawfully monitored nine phone numbers associated with female foreign nationals. In each of these three cases there was no prosecution or disciplinary action taken because the NSA staff involved in the abuses resigned.

At least six other similar LOVEINT cased were recorded by the NSA. One spy entered six email addresses used by an American ex-girlfriend into a surveillance system on the first day he gained access to it. He later claimed he had done so because he “wanted to practice” how to use the snooping technology. Another NSA spy monitored the phone calls of his foreign girlfriend for a month, claiming that he wanted to discover whether she was involved with any local government officials or any other activity that might get him in trouble. The worst punishment that was handed out in any of these cases was a reduction in pay for two months, a reduction in grade, and access to classified information being revoked. One LOVEINT case was referred to the Justice Department in 2011—but it declined to prosecute. The inspector general’s letter says that two investigations are currently ongoing into alleged misuse of NSA spy systems, and one allegation is being reviewed for possible investigation.

Notably, several of the violations were only identified after spies with guilty consciences came clean or failed a lie detector test. It seems highly likely that many similar incidents slip under the radar, particularly given the sheer scale of NSA surveillance operations. The agency reportedly intercepts a mammoth 1.7 billion communications every day—and it is surely difficult if not impossible to keep tabs on every single one of these.

Either way, the release of information about the known LOVEINT cases is in itself significant. It confirms beyond doubt that NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander, whether due to incompetence or complicity, made a false statement when he claimed in August that “no one has wilfully or knowingly disobeyed the law or tried to invade your civil liberties or privacy.” Alexander has now changed his tune in light of recent disclosures, telling the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday that “there have been only 12 substantiated cases of wilful violations over 10 years, essentially one per year.”