Employees at the National Security Agency intentionally misused their power and spied on boyfriends or girlfriends at least 12 times over the last year, a direct violation according to a newly unveiled letter from the agency’s inspector general.
US lawmakers and intelligence community higher-ups have consistently asserted that instances of NSA analysts abusing their power is rare to the point of irrelevance. Yet on top of the dozen violations, officials are investigating two more cases and considering a third.
The revelations were made public late Thursday in a letter from NSA inspector general George Ellard to Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa).
Grassley requested a report from the inspector general last month after a report surfaced indicating intelligence agents had assigned a shorthand code to describe their internal activity. Signal intelligence, for example, is expressed with SIGINT. Another, LOVEINT, was apparently used when agents would use surveillance on a specific love interest.
The US Department of Justice was notified about at least six of the 12 cases, although the offending employee was often allowed to retire from the NSA before they could be punished. In other cases workers were suspended without pay, had their promotions cancelled, or saw brief reductions in pay or rank.
“Where (a media report) says we’re sweeping up the communications of civilians overseas that aren’t targets of collection systems is wrong,” NSA Director General Keith Alexander said in a congressional hearing Thursday. “If our folks do that, we hold them accountable.”
One case consisted of a civilian NSA employee, who after suspecting her husband of being unfaithful, searched for foreign telephone numbers she previously found in his phone. She resigned before any disciplinary action could be taken.
In 2005 another employee was caught monitoring his foreign national girlfriend “Without an authorized purpose” for at least one month. He claimed, according to the inspector general’s letter, he was attempting to find out if she was “involved” with any foreign officials or participating in activity that “might get him in trouble.”
Alexander and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee Thursday, encouraged lawmakers not to believe the headlines.
“The press claims evidence of thousands of privacy violations,” Alexander said. “This is false and misleading. According to NSA’s independent Inspect General that have been only 12 substantiated cases of willful violations over 10 years, essentially one per year.”
But Senator Grassley was unsatisfied, saying “We shouldn’t tolerate even one misuse of this program.”
Civil liberty advocates, a community of lawyers and concerned citizens that has long been at odds with the NSA, remain unimpressed by the latest news.
“What’s clear about the instances of abuse is that these have nothing to do with terrorism,” Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, told NBC. “This is about individuals prying into the personal lives of the people closest to them. It’s an abuse of government data that should not be in the government’s hands.”