Surveilling a lover with the push of a button

New report reveals that NSA employees were caught eavesdropping on spouses and girlfriends, but no criminal penalties have resulted

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On a dozen occasions over the past decade, National Security Agency employees misused their incredible eavesdropping powers for the most trivial of personal reasons: They snooped on girlfriends, husbands, wives or others of personal interest, actions that later provoked discipline or retirements but no criminal penalties.

The number seems surprisingly small given recent revelations that the agency has been persistently storing phone data and in some cases e-mail information involving a large portion of the American public, essentially putting a vast trove of electronic information in the hands of its employees. The modest total could mean either that the agency ‘s employees are extraordinarily well-disciplined, or that the NSA’s auditing does a poor job of catching such human failings.

But one thing is clear from the Sept. 11 summary of these events sent by the NSA’s Office of Inspector General to the Judiciary Committee’s senior Republican, Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley: Individual NSA employees apparently possess astonishing powers to readily and instantly access personal data that average citizens would need private detectives to uncover.

In NSA lingo, the practice is called unauthorized “tasking” and “collecting” — and in many of the cases, it was discovered through admissions by those involved or the tattling of a colleague, not by internal checks and balances. And none of the incidents appears to have provoked any criminal penalties.

Two years ago, for example, an agency employee disclosed during “an investigation into another matter” that she had “tasked” the telephone number of her boyfriend, who was a foreign national. She said she only sought to ensure she wasn’t dealing with a shady character, but wound up resigning “before disciplinary action had been imposed,” according to the letter.

In 2003, an NSA employee working overseas “tasked” nine phone numbers of foreign females, including a girlfriend who ultimately told a friend she suspected her calls were being monitored. The misbehavior — which actually involved the illicit monitoring of calls by nine foreign women — was discovered after the friend tattled to the agency, prompting an investigation.  

That NSA employee had also conducted “call chaining” on one of the numbers, meaning that he noted who the person was talking to and then collected data from that person’s calls as well. Conversations involving a U.S. national were among those collected. The employee “resigned before discipline has been proposed,” according to the letter, signed by NSA Inspector General George Ellard.

Half the incidents cited occurred between 2003 and 2006, a period when the NSA’s surveillance systems were being used to cast a particularly wide net, ultimately provoking anger on Capitol Hill over the breadth of that work — once it was disclosed this year by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden — and inspiring some rebukes from the secret court that adjudicates the legality of NSA actions.

Only two of the 12 abuses described in Ellard’s letter were clearly labeled as having been discovered through an audit or other internal check, while five were depicted as originating in admissions by the employees that committed them. The origins of the other cases were not described.

Grassley, who released the NSA letter on Sept. 26, commented that while he appreciated the agency’s acknowledgment of the abuses, “We shouldn’t tolerate even one instance of misuse of this program. Robust oversight of the program must be completed to ensure that both national security and the Constitution are protected.”

Grassley is among nine members of the Judiciary Committee who called this week for Ellard to conduct a wider probe of how much telephone and internet data the NSA has collected and retained, and who was privy to it. A dozen bills have been introduced in recent weeks to curtail some of the NSA’s surveillance — related activities, and the White House’s Director of National Intelligence has expressed a willingness to consider a few new restrictions.

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