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NSA reports on its domestic spying efforts

In response to an ACLU lawsuit, the agency releases on Christmas Eve heavily redacted reports detailing privacy violations between 2001 and 2013.

Michelle Meyers
Michelle Meyers wrote and edited CNET News stories from 2005 to 2020 and is now a contributor to CNET.
Michelle Meyers
2 min read

Grassroots groups fly an airship over an NSA data center in June to protest its mass surveillance program. Greenpeace

The National Security Administration gave its critics a Christmas gift this year: a treasure trove of reports on the agency's spying wrongdoings.

Though hardly a gift of the heart -- the NSA released the heavily redacted reports Christmas Eve in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit from the ACLU -- the reports do detail privacy violations that took place amid an overly broad surveillance net cast after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

The quarterly and annual reports, filed with the president's Intelligence Oversight Board, cover NSA activities from 2001 to 2013. They cite examples of information on Americans being emailed to unauthorized recipients, stored in unsecured computers and retained after it was supposed to be destroyed, according to Bloomberg, which first noticed the reports as others awaited Santa's arrival.

The NSA maintains that the majority of the compliance incidents "involve unintentional technical or human error" and that in the "very few cases" involving intentional misuse, a thorough investigation was completed and reported, and appropriate disciplinary action was taken.

"By emphasizing accountability across all levels of the enterprise, and transparently reporting errors and violations to outside oversight authorities, NSA protects privacy and civil liberties while safeguarding the nation and our allies," the agency said in a statement.

In one example of intentional misuse, highlighted by Bloomberg, an analyst reported in 2012 that "during the past two or three years, she had searched her spouse's personal telephone directory without his knowledge to obtain names and telephone numbers for targeting." In a 2009 incident, a "US Army sergeant used an NSA system 'to target his wife,' also a soldier," according to The Wall Street Journal. That led to a reduction in his rank to specialist.

Much of the NSA's mission stems from a 1981 executive order that legalized the surveillance of foreigners living outside of the US. The agency's actions have come under increased scrutiny following the leak of documents in 2013 by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Some of those pointed to alleged surveillance violations similar in nature to ones the NSA detailed in its Wednesday release.

Patrick Toomey, a staff attorney with the ACLU's National Security Project, said the new documents "shed more light on how these spying activities impact Americans, and how the NSA has misused the information it collects. They show an urgent need for greater oversight by all three branches of government."

Click here to review all of the NSA reports in detail.