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New NSA revelations stir congressional concern

Sunday - 8/18/2013, 10:08am  ET

FILE - This Sept. 19, 2007 file photo shows the National Security Agency building at Fort Meade, Md. The U.S. National Security Agency has broken privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times each year since Congress granted the intelligence agency broad new powers in 2008, The Washington Post reports. In one case, telephone calls from Washington were intercepted when the city's area code was confused with the dialing code for Egypt. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

KIMBERLY DOZIER
AP Intelligence Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) -- New revelations from leaker Edward Snowden that the National Security Agency has overstepped its authority thousands of times since 2008 are stirring renewed calls on Capitol Hill for serious changes to NSA spy programs, undermining White House hopes that President Barack Obama had quieted the controversy with his assurances of oversight.

An internal audit provided by Snowden to The Washington Post shows the agency has repeatedly broken privacy rules or exceeded its legal authority every year since Congress granted it broad new powers in 2008.

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 -- reports used as the basis for informing Congress.

Obama has repeatedly said that Congress was thoroughly briefed on the programs revealed by Snowden in June, but some senior lawmakers said they had been unaware of the NSA audit until they read the news on Friday. The programs described earlier vacuum up vast amounts of metadata -- such as telephone numbers called and called from, the time and duration of calls -- from most Americans' phone records, and scoop up global Internet usage data.

White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest said Friday that the NSA documents showed that NSA's Compliance Office established in 2009 "is monitoring, detecting, addressing and reporting compliance incidents," and that "the majority of the compliance incidents are unintentional." In a statement from the Massachusetts island of Martha's Vineyard, where the president is vacationing, he added that the administration is "keeping the Congress appropriately informed of compliance issues as they arise."

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy announced he would hold hearings into the new disclosures.

"I remain concerned that we are still not getting straightforward answers from the NSA," the Vermont Democrat said in a statement.

Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein said her committee had been notified of compliance problems -- not by seeing the internal audit but through legally required reports to her committee.

"In all such cases, the incidents have been addressed by ending or adapting the activity," the California Democrat said in a statement." She added, "The committee has never identified an instance in which the NSA has intentionally abused its authority to conduct surveillance for inappropriate purposes."

But she said that committee would be asking for additional reports in future, and members would start making routine trips to the NSA to oversee its activities.

Her Republican House counterpart, Intelligence chairman Mike Rogers, said human error was inevitable and "there was no intentional and willful violation of the law."

But the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, called the new disclosures "incredibly troubling." He said he had instructed his staff "to thoroughly review and evaluate these allegations."

Another Democratic member of the Intelligence Committee, Rep. Mike Thompson of California, said: "Reports that the NSA repeatedly overstepped its legal boundaries, broke privacy regulations and attempted to shield required disclosure of violations are outrageous, inappropriate and must be addressed."

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, who generally supports the programs, said in a statement Friday that the new revelations "are extremely disturbing."

And two senators who have consistently raised red flags about possible privacy violations stemming from NSA programs indicated there is more to be revealed.

"We believe Americans should know that this confirmation is just the tip of a larger iceberg," said Democratic Sens. Mark Udall of Colorado and Ron Wyden of Oregon in a statement. Both declined to provide details, citing Senate rules about discussing classified information.

Proposed legislation to dismantle the programs was narrowly defeated last month in the House. The July legislative effort brought together Libertarian-leaning conservatives and liberal Democrats who pressed for change against congressional leaders and lawmakers focused on security.

A week ago, Obama sought to soothe concerns by promising to consider reforms to NSA surveillance.

"It's not enough for me to have confidence in these programs," he said at a White House news conference. "The American people have to have confidence in them as well."

He announced changes such as convening an outside advisory panel to review U.S. surveillance powers, although it is unclear how that would differ from the existing U.S. Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, mandated by Congress to monitor surveillance and constitutional concerns. Obama also said the NSA would hire a privacy officer -- though the NSA already has a compliance office. None of those measures would seem likely to stop the kind of inadvertent collection of information that was described in the NSA audit.

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