The National Security Agency improperly gathered tens of thousands of emails from Americans who had no ties to terrorism, documents declassified by the Obama administration on Wednesday showed.
In the wake of a series of damaging reports about controversial surveillance techniques, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper declassified a trio of documents that show intelligence officials collected up to 56,000 domestic Internet communications annually between 2008 and 2011.
Intelligence officials said they revealed the mistakes to the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which called the practice unconstitutional and told the NSA to reform its data-collection methods in 2011.
The government “advised the court that the volume and nature of the information it has been collecting is fundamentally different from what the court had been led to believe,” a FISA Court judge wrote.
The purpose of the disclosure by the administration was to convince detractors that the NSA makes reforms when it oversteps its authority.
For three years, the NSA collected bundled Internet communications from fiber-optic cables, and in the process, gathered thousands of emails and other Internet activities by Americans. They say that such collections were inadvertent.
“For technological reasons, NSA was not capable of breaking those down, and still is not capable, of breaking those down into their individual components,” an intelligence official said. “So if you had a situation where one of those emails may have referenced your targeted email in the subject line, you’d nonetheless collect the whole inbox list. It's like a screenshot, you get whatever is popping up on your screen at the time."
In a background briefing describing the documents, intelligence officials argued that the mistakes were the results of technological errors, not government overreach.
One intelligence official said the gathering of U.S. emails was “not an overreaching by [a] greedy agency seeking to spy on Americans.”
“Congress … clearly knew that there would be inadvertent collection” of Americans emails, another official said.
Administration sources said they trashed communications that were improperly collected and that the FISA Court approved their new standard for gathering digital data.
Some lawmakers said the administration needed to do more to improve oversight of the secretive surveillance methods.
The administration decided to release the documents after an internal audit was made public showing thousands of privacy violations committed by the NSA each year. Another report revealed that NSA can access up to 75 percent of all U.S. Internet traffic.
After initially refusing to discuss The Wall Street Journal report, intelligence officials hit back at its assertions.
"The reports leave readers with the impression that NSA is sifting through as much as 75 percent of the United States’ online communications, which is simply not true," the NSA and Office of the Director of National Intelligence said in a joint statement late Wednesday. "In its foreign intelligence mission, and using all its authorities, NSA 'touches' about 1.6 percent, and analysts only look at 0.00004 percent, of the world’s internet traffic."
The Wall Street Journal is standing behind its report.
The administration’s hand was also forced by a Freedom of Information Act request made by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Earlier Wednesday, Deputy White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest still insisted that the federal government does not spy on Americans, saying that the focus on the program’s mishaps proved the tactics had proper oversight.
However, the administration for months decided not to make such information public, insisting that each branch of government was properly informed about American phone and Internet surveillance programs — and that the public need not worry about a series of government leaks started by former private contractor Edward Snowden.