“Given the executive branch’s responsibility for and expertise in determining how best to protect our national security, and in light of the scale of this bulk collection program, the court must rely heavily on the government to monitor this program,” Judge Reggie B. Walton wrote in a 2009 order that found the NSA had repeatedly misrepresented its programs.
In Congress, meanwhile, only some lawmakers fully understand the programs they have repeatedly authorized and are supposed to be overseeing. For instance, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., one of the sponsors of the USA Patriot Act, has said he never intended it to be used to collect and store the phone records of every American.
And when Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was asked whether the government was doing that, he testified, “No.” Yet Snowden’s revelations, published in Britain’s Guardian newspaper, show that is what happened.
There is no evidence in the new documents suggesting the NSA used its surveillance powers to spy on Americans for political purposes, a fear of many critics who recall the FBI’s intrusive monitoring of civil rights leaders and anti-war protesters in the 1960s. Instead, the documents blame the years of government overreaching on technical mistakes, misunderstandings and lack of training.
From 2006 through early 2009, for instance, the NSA’s computers reached into the database of phone records and compared them with thousands of others without “reasonable, articulable suspicion,” the required legal standard.
By the time the problems were discovered, only about 10 percent of the 17,835 phone numbers on the government’s watch list in early 2009 met the legal standard.
By then, Walton said he’d “lost confidence” in the NSA’s ability to legally operate the program. He ordered a full review of the surveillance.
In its long report to the surveillance court in August 2009, the Obama administration blamed its mistakes on the complexity of the system and “a lack of shared understanding among the key stakeholders” about the scope of the surveillance.