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.
"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. (continued...)
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Posted: 2013-09-15 @ 4:22pm PT
We should not give up on encryption. It is still our best opportunity for protecting electronic communications. I created ThreadThat dot com to help non-technical users out there encrypt messages and files. It's free and easy-to-use.
Posted: 2013-09-14 @ 12:09pm PT
This was a great comedy piece, I got a good laugh out of it. What will they say next, the dog ate our copy of the 4th amendment and we forgot what it was about?
It occurs to me that at least one man has a complete understanding of the scope of this system, a heroic defender of the constitution, but Obama, et al, are calling him a traitor and a criminal. Perhaps if they quit persecuting this great man, he would simply tell them what's wrong with it.
An aside, interesting that "the nation's most highly classified documents" are all about the wrong being done to its citizens. This level of data mining has to be unprecedented in the private sector, it had to involve a huge effort to put in place and maintain. I can see why they'd want to keep it a secret, but don't they have anything better to do?