The National Security Agency for almost three years searched a massive database of Americans' phone call records attempting to identify potential terrorists in violation of court-approved privacy rules, and the problem went unfixed because no one at the agency had a full technical understanding of how its system worked, according to new documents and senior government officials reported by the Washington Post. Justice Department officials discovered the problem and reported it to the court that oversees surveillance programs, the documents show, undermining assertions by the NSA that self-reporting is part of its culture.
The improper activity went on from May 2006 to January 2009, according to a March 2009 opinion by Judge Reggie B. Walton, who serves on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The opinion was in a trove of documents released Tuesday in response to lawsuits by civil liberties groups and at the direction of President Obama. Documents released over the past month paint a troubling picture of an agency that has sought and won far-reaching surveillance powers to run complex domestic data collection without anyone having full technical understanding of the efforts, and that has repeatedly misrepresented the programs' scope to its court overseer.