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Thursday, December 15, 2022

NSA Surveillance Effort: Too Far?


NSA Watchdog Concluded One Analyst’s Surveillance Project Went Too Far   In Bloomberg

Newly unearthed inspector general’s report is coda to Snowden-era controversy over NSA surveillance methods. The National Security Agency’s headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland.

The National Security Agency’s headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland.

By Jason Leopold, Katrina Manson, and William Turton

November 1, 2022 at 9:18 AM EDT

An “experienced” analyst working at the National Security Agency developed a surveillance project about a decade ago that resulted in the unauthorized targeting and collection of private communications of people or organizations in the US, newly unearthed documents show.

An investigation into the matter, which hasn’t been previously reported, found that the analyst “acted with reckless disregard” and violated numerous rules and possibly the law, according to a 2016 report by the NSA’s Office of Inspector General. The agency released the report in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. 

The inspector general’s report sheds new light on unauthorized surveillance and lax oversight at a secretive agency whose global eavesdropping methods have faced intense scrutiny for vacuuming up massive amounts of data — including on Americans, who are protected by US law from being surveilled without authorization. The IG’s investigation unfolded as the first news stories were being published based on leaked classified documents from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

The inspector general’s report also reveals how a single analyst was given relatively free rein to develop a surveillance technique that many of his superiors didn’t understand. And it shows the lengths to which whistleblowers inside the agency went to get their allegations taken more seriously. The full report is here.

Many details about the analyst’s project aren’t known. The inspector general deemed the analyst’s action “egregious” in hindsight but noted he got conflicting guidance, told by some officials that his activities were acceptable and told by others to stop. The February 2016 report, which spans more than 400 pages and had been classified top secret, is heavily redacted. It’s not known if the analyst—or anyone else—was held accountable for what the inspector general described as potentially illegal surveillance.

The NSA didn’t respond to specific questions about the report, including whether any action was taken against the analyst. But an NSA spokesperson provided a statement saying that the agency is “fully committed to the rigorous and independent oversight provided by the NSA Inspector General’s Office.”

“The NSA operates in a culture of compliance to ensure that NSA’s foreign intelligence mission is conducted in accordance with all applicable laws, regulations and procedures,” the spokesperson said.

The analyst said he was working on a “SIGDEV” effort, according to the report. That is short for signals intelligence development, aimed at finding and improving new avenues for eavesdropping. Two former NSA officials who reviewed the report told Bloomberg News that he appeared to be developing a new surveillance tool to improve spying methods that had scooped up Americans’ communications. The former officials asked not to be named in order to discuss sensitive intelligence information.

The inspector general’s investigation was sparked by two whistleblowers in May 2013. The analyst was taken aback by criticism of his work and vigorously defended it. Nonetheless, he told an investigator he had “been proceeding with his project in a ‘kind of [by the] seat of the pants’ mode” and that it was “kind of dangerous” and “unknown territory,” according to the report.

relates to NSA Watchdog Concluded One Analyst’s Surveillance Project Went Too Far

The probe began a month before the first news stories appeared based on Snowden’s leaks. Those stories revealed a massive, warrantless program to collect Americans’ phone records, map mobile phone locations worldwide and undermine encryption, and they came out at a time when the agency was already facing criticism for its expansion of surveillance capabilities after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. 

There is no indication in the inspector general’s report that the events are related to NSA activities and programs revealed in the Snowden documents, which had been secretly authorized. However, the inspector general’s investigation occurred during a period in which the NSA was under intense pressure to address alleged wrongdoings.   ....  '

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