An “internal audit” by the National Security Agency — one of the documents leaked to the Washington Post by Edward Snowden — shows many breaches of legal authority or privacy rules by the agency and reveals that the agency engaged in unauthorized surveillance of Americans and activities within America.
According to the Post article, the NSA “audit” indicates that there were 2776 such incidents in the 12 months preceding May 2012. That number, however, is just the tip of the iceberg because the “audit” counts only incidents at the NSA’s Fort Meade headquarters and other facilities in the Washington area, and does not examine other NSA operating units and regional collection centers.
I’m not going to try to summarize the Post article here; it includes a lot of detail and a lot of attempted explanation and should be read by anyone who cares about privacy issues and how our government deals with them. It appears, however, that the NSA is a world unto itself. The special court, and the congressional committees that are supposed to provide oversight, don’t have either the resources, the access, or the interest to really police and control the NSA’s activities. The Obama Administration’s willingness to immediately disclaim knowledge of the improper activities of government agencies that are supposed to be under its control also doesn’t give any comfort that the executive branch will vigorously protect the privacy rights of Americans.
If the NSA really is the proverbial black box, with its activities wholly hidden from view in the name of national security and governmental secrecy, why should we trust a so-called “audit” that the NSA itself has prepared? Why should we believe its count of breaches, or its categorization of breaches, or its depiction of breaches as inadvertent? More fundamentally, why should we believe that the NSA would hesitate to collect information about Americans if it thought it might be useful to do so? When no one is guarding the hen house, the fox doesn’t pay a lot of attention to the niceties of its conduct.