San Francisco • Government officials for nearly three years accessed data on thousands of domestic phone numbers they shouldn't have and then misrepresented their actions to a secret spy court to reauthorize the government's surveillance program, documents released Tuesday show.
The Obama administration had earlier conceded that its surveillance program scooped up more domestic phone calls and emails than authorized. But until Tuesday, the depths of the program's abuse were unknown.
According to the documents released by the administration, a spy court judge in 2009 was so fed up with the government's overreaching that he threatened to shutter the surveillance program designed to fight terrorism. Judge Reggie Walton said in March 2009 that he had "lost confidence" in officials' ability to legally operate the surveillance program.
The National Security Agency (NSA) told the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that month that "from a technical standpoint, there was no single person who had a complete technical understanding" of how the program's computer system worked.
Walton issued his blistering opinion after discovering government officials had been accessing domestic phone records for nearly three years without "reasonable, articulate suspicion" that they were connected to terrorism. For instance, he noted that only 1,935 phone numbers out of 17,835 on a list investigators were working with in early 2009 met that standard.
Walton said the government's excuse that analysis believed his order applied only to archived phone records "strained credulity," and he ordered the NSA to conduct an "end-to-end" review of its processes and policies while also ordering closer monitoring of its activities.
Later in 2009, a Justice Department lawyer reported to the spy court a "likely violation" of NSA surveillance rules. The lawyer said that in some cases it appeared the NSA was distributing sensitive phone records by email to as many as 189 analysts, but only 53 were approved by the court to see them.
Walton wrote that he was "deeply troubled by the incidents," which he said occurred just weeks after the NSA had performed a major review of its internal practices because of the initial problems reported earlier in the year.
The judge said in November 2009 that on the same day that the NSA counterterrorism office reminded employees they were not allowed to indiscriminately share phone records with co-workers and one day after a similar reminder from the agency's lawyers an NSA analyst improperly shared information with colleagues who were not approved to see it.
Walton also noted that sometimes a U.S. phone number would be reassigned by phone companies, and in such cases the NSA would scrutinize the records of an innocent customer. Walton called such cases "a source of concern by the court." He noted that, months earlier, the court ordered the NSA to explain more fully how it chooses which phone numbers to search and to delete any information that was improperly collected.
The hundreds of previously classified documents federal officials released Tuesday came in response to a lawsuit filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
The Obama administration has been facing mounting pressure to reveal more details about the government's domestic surveillance program since a former intelligence contractor released documents showing massive NSA trawling of domestic data.
The information included domestic telephone numbers, calling patterns and the agency's collection of Americans' Internet user names, IP addresses and other metadata swept up in surveillance of foreign terror suspects.