The audit found that the NSA had engaged in "unauthorized collection, storage, access to or distribution of legally protected communications" almost 3,000 times in 2012, though most of those violations were "unintended." The Post also reports that "Despite the quadrupling of the NSA’s oversight staff after a series of significant violations in 2009, the rate of infractions increased throughout 2011 and early 2012." The audit was leaked to the Post by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden who has acquired temporary asylum in Russia.
President Obama has repeatedly insisted that leaks about NSA surveillance have failed to uncover abuse. Obama told NBC Tonight Show host Jay Leno earlier this month that "none of the revelations show that government has actually abused these powers, but they're pretty significant powers." Last week, Obama said during a press conference:
If you look at the reports—even the disclosures that Mr. Snowden has put forward—all the stories that have been written, what you're not reading about is the government actually abusing these programs and listening in on people's phone calls or inappropriately reading people's emails. What you're hearing about is the prospect that these could be abused. Now, part of the reason they're not abused is because these checks are in place, and those abuses would be against the law and would be against the orders of the [foreign intelligence surveillance court].
The Post report also raises serious questions about congressional oversight, or the "checks" the president refers to above, because it reveals that the chair of the Senate intelligence committee, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, did not know about the violations in the 2012 audit until the Post began looking into the story. NSA officials are actually taught not to give "extraneous information" to officials charged with overseeing their extraordinary surveillance powers under federal law.
Obama is not the only one who has made sweeping claims about the lack of abuse of NSA authorities. Shortly after the initial leaks in June, Feinstein told CBS News that "I have seen no abuse by these agencies, nor has any claim ever been made in any way, shape, or form, that this was abused." Feinstein's House counterpart, Republican intelligence committee chair Rep. Mike Rogers of Michigan, told CBS News in July that "there's zero privacy violations on this in its entire length of the program."
Last week the president announced the creation of a review board that will look at NSA practices in order to "consider how we can maintain the trust of the people, how we can make sure that there absolutely is no abuse in terms of how these surveillance technologies are used." The process was initiated Monday by director of national intelligence James Clapper. Critics have countered that the purpose of the review is not to alter surveillance policy but assuage public fears about government spying.
With the leak of the NSA's internal audit, the public is now aware of at least one serious problem that should be within the review board's purview to examine: The increasing number of surveillance infractions that the president and other top officials have insisted weren't occurring at all.