Yes, the NSA Violated Surveillance Privacy Rules – at Least 2,776 Times
And yes, they've accessed content
The Washington Post has the latest Edward Snowden-provided bombshell:
The National Security Agency has broken privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times each year since Congress granted the agency broad new powers in 2008, according to an internal audit and other top-secret documents.
Most of the infractions involve unauthorized surveillance of Americans or foreign intelligence targets in the United States, both of which are restricted by law and executive order. They range from significant violations of law to typographical errors that resulted in unintended interception of U.S. e-mails and telephone calls.
The documents, provided earlier this summer to The Washington Post by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, include a level of detail and analysis that is not routinely shared with Congress or the special court that oversees surveillance. In one of the documents, agency personnel are instructed to remove details and substitute more generic language in reports to the Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
In one instance, the NSA decided that it need not report the unintended surveillance of Americans. A notable example in 2008 was the interception of a "large number" of calls placed from Washington when a programming error confused U.S. area code 202 for 20, the international dialing code for Egypt, according to a "quality assurance" review that was not distributed to the NSA's oversight staff.
We may now also know a little more detail about the one incident where the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court discovered the NSA violating the rules. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has sued to get this information, which is scheduled to be released next week.
In another case, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which has authority over some NSA operations, did not learn about a new collection method until it had been in operation for many months. The court ruled it unconstitutional.
So the NSA was not always informing the court of its actions. And yes, they improperly accessed content of communications:
[T]he more serious lapses include unauthorized access to intercepted communications, the distribution of protected content and the use of automated systems without built-in safeguards to prevent unlawful surveillance.
There's a lot of information in the story and I'm not going to make a mockery of fair use by quoting it all. Please read here. No doubt the fallout is going to be big on this one.