Congress Investigating Spy Violation By Nsa

Agency's Domestic Eavesdropping Program Exceeded Limits Set Last Year, Review Finds

April 17, 2009|By Paul West | Paul West,paul.west@baltsun.com

Washington -Congress is investigating a "serious" failure by the National Security Agency to comply with legal limits on its domestic eavesdropping activities, key lawmakers said Thursday.

An internal review by the Justice Department and the NSA found that the spy agency's monitoring program had exceeded limits set by Congress last year designed to protect the privacy of U.S. citizens. The Justice Department said that steps have been taken to correct the problem, discovered as the Obama administration was preparing to seek renewal of the surveillance program.

"We haven't found any evidence that anyone at NSA had deliberately broken the law," said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who chairs a House Intelligence subcommittee that oversees the NSA.

The Baltimore County Democrat said his panel has held four classified briefings on the matter and is continuing its investigation.

Separately, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee described details of the NSA's "overcollection" of domestic communications, first reported in The New York Times, as "serious allegations." Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, said her committee "is looking into this, and we will hold a hearing on this subject within one month."

Ruppersberger, in an interview, described the NSA's breach as "a serious failure to comply with the FISA court."

Before the NSA can eavesdrop on the private communications of Americans suspected of involvement in terrorist activity, it is generally required to obtain a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court.

However, legislation approved last fall gave the NSA the right to conduct warrantless eavesdropping on the enormous volume of international communications that passes through the U.S. every day.

The NSA and its intelligence partners in more than 30 countries monitor over a billion communications daily, on average, including e-mail, phone calls and other records, said Ruppersberger.

What remains unclear, according to the congressman and others, is the extent of potential privacy violations. Beyond the surveillance of known or suspected terrorists under FISA warrants, the NSA's eavesdropping program is believed to focus mainly on patterns of communications that could turn up evidence of potential threats.

The bulk of the data collected by the NSA's highly classified program is believed to involve communication "envelopes," rather than the content of e-mails or phone conversations, for example.

Ruppersberger said that none of the information that had been improperly collected by NSA had gone to other agencies. But he said the breach pointed up the need for "more diligent checks and balances internally," given the enormous quantity of data being intercepted, and he said the task of internal monitoring needs to involve everyone from lawyers to engineers.

The NSA, headquartered at Fort Meade, has struggled with public relations problems through much of the post-9/11 period. The agency's warrantless wiretap program, secretly authorized by President George W. Bush, raised widespread concerns about potential violations of civil liberties.

In 2008, The Wall Street Journal reported that the NSA was monitoring vast quantities of domestic communications and records, from e-mails and phone calls to Internet searches, credit-card transactions and travel records.

NSA spokeswoman Judith Emmel said officials there "maintain rigorous internal mechanisms and are subject to external oversight" by the director of national intelligence, the Justice Department and Congress. She said that employees "work tirelessly for the good of the nation, and serve this country proudly."

The Justice Department said that officials at Justice and the NSA had "detected issues that raised concern" about NSA's "compliance with existing laws and court orders" during a routine review.

After "corrective measures were taken and new safeguards" adopted, Attorney General Eric Holder sought authorization from the FISA court for renewal of the eavesdropping program, according to a Justice statement.

"The Justice Department takes its national security oversight responsibilities seriously and works diligently to ensure that surveillance under established legal authorities complies with the nation's laws. ..." the statement concluded.

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