WASHINGTON, D.C. — The surveillance machine grew too big for anyone to understand.
The National Security Agency set it in motion in 2006 and the vast network of supercomputers, switches and wiretaps began gathering Americans’ phone and Internet records by the millions, looking for signs of terrorism.
But every day, NSA analysts snooped on more American phone records than they were allowed to. Some officials searched databases of phone records without even realizing it. Others shared the results of their searches with people who weren’t authorized to see them.
It took nearly three years before the government figured out that so much had gone wrong. It took even longer to figure out why.
Newly declassified documents released Tuesday tell a story of a surveillance apparatus so unwieldy and complex that nobody fully comprehended it, even as the government pointed it at the American people in the name of protecting them.
“There was no single person who had a complete technical understanding,” government lawyers explained to a federal judge in 2009.
During a summer in which former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden released America’s surveillance secrets to the world, the Obama administration has repeatedly tried to reassure people that the NSA’s powers were kept in check by Congress and the courts. The mistakes discovered in 2009 have been fixed, the president said, a reflection of that oversight.
But the documents from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court show that, in developing the world’s most sophisticated surveillance network, even senior lawyers and officials weren’t sure how the system worked and didn’t understand what they were told.
“It appears there was never a complete understanding among the key personnel regarding what each individual meant by the terminology,” lawyers wrote in March 2009 as the scope of the problems came into focus.
As a result, the judges on the surveillance court, who rely on the NSA to explain the surveillance program, approved a program that was far more intrusive than they believed.