WASHINGTON — The National Security Agency is facing its worst crisis since the domestic spying scandals four decades ago led to the first formal oversight and overhaul of U.S. intelligence operations.
Thanks to former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden’s flood of leaks to the media, and the Obama administration’s uneven response to them, morale at the spy agency responsible for intercepting communications of terrorists and foreign adversaries has plummeted, former officials say. Even sympathetic lawmakers are calling for new curbs on the NSA’s powers.
“This is a secret intelligence agency that’s now in the news every day,” said Michael Hayden, who headed the NSA from 1999 to 2005 and later led the CIA. “Each day, the workforce wakes up and reads the daily indictment.”
President Barack Obama acknowledged Friday that many Americans have lost trust in the nation’s largest intelligence agency. “There’s no doubt that, for all the work that’s been done to protect the American people’s privacy, the capabilities of the NSA are scary to people,” he said in a CNN interview.
He added, “Between all the safeguards and checks that we put in place within the executive branch, and the federal court oversight that takes place on the program, and congressional oversight, people are still concerned as to whether their emails are being read or their phone calls are being listened to.”
Intelligence officials say those concerns are unwarranted and do not involve illegal operations. They say the latest revelations are largely technical glitches that the NSA, the director of national intelligence, and the Justice Department discovered and reported on their own to Congress and the secret court that oversees NSA surveillance.
As a result, they argue, the problems are fundamentally different than the deliberate spying on Americans that congressional committees uncovered in the wake of the Watergate scandal.
Still, the NSA’s current problems stem, in part, from its efforts to keep almost all aspects of its work secret. The NSA never publicly disclosed that it was collecting domestic telephone logs, for example, so it had little public support when the court-approved secret program hit the headlines.
“A lot of the current controversy would have been avoidable with a reasonable degree of transparency,” said Steven Aftergood, an intelligence expert at the Federation of American Scientists, a Washington-based advocacy and research group.
The government should have long ago explained the parameters of surveillance that touches Americans, Aftergood said.
Instead, “they have denied that records of U.S. persons are affected at all, which wasn’t true, and they have made assertions about the quality and performance of oversight that have been called into question.”
Arguably the most damaging disclosure so far came Wednesday when the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declassified and released three documents, including an 86-page ruling from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which was created as one of the reforms of the 1970s.
The ruling revealed for the first time that the NSA had improperly collected the emails of tens of thousands of Americans between 2008 and 2011 while it was siphoning foreigners’ data from Internet nodes based in the United States.
In the opinion, U.S. District Court Judge John Bates rebuked the NSA for repeatedly misleading the surveillance court. He ordered the collection program shut down until it could be fixed, and the American emails expunged. The documents also showed that the NSA had exceeded its authority when searching databases of U.S. phone records and email “to and from” fields.
Those disclosures came days after an internal report leaked by Snowden revealed that the NSA had logged more than 2,700 violations of privacy rules in a one-year period. The report said all were inadvertent mistakes caused by technical glitches and operator errors.
Obama administration officials downplayed the mistakes and said Bates’ admonishment showed how well the oversight system works. But their explanations did little to quell growing public unease.
One U.S. official, for example, told reporters on a conference call that about 56,000 communications of Americans were inadvertently intercepted each year before Bates shuttered the program. The official called that a “relatively small number.”
Obama said during a news conference Aug. 9 that he wanted to restore public confidence in the NSA by disclosing as much as possible about the surveillance programs that Snowden had revealed – releasing “the whole elephant,” as Obama put it.
But critics, including lawmakers from both parties, say the administration has not come close to doing that.
Even closed-door briefings to Congress by senior intelligence officials, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., wrote to Obama last week, “have not provided a fulsome accounting of the totality of surveillance activities conducted by the federal government, and in particular, by the NSA.”
Corker is demanding more information, and other lawmakers are proposing significant changes, including an end to the collection of domestic calling records. NSA officials fear Congress will rein in spying efforts that have helped thwart terrorist plots and revealed the intentions of other governments.
The last time the NSA faced such a firestorm of criticism was after the Watergate crisis. In 1975, the Senate created a special investigative body modeled on the committee that had helped expose the excesses of the Nixon White House. Led by Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho, the so-called Church Committee was the first to examine abuses by intelligence agencies.
Among its discoveries: The NSA had eavesdropped on Americans involved with anti-war and civil rights groups. Another program intercepted every telegram, then a key form of communication, between Americans and foreigners. No warrants were obtained.
No evidence has emerged in the Snowden leaks indicating that the NSA is intentionally spying on Americans or meddling in domestic politics. The agency’s defenders argue that the disclosures actually prove how hard the NSA works to protect Americans’ privacy.
Joshua Foust, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, pointed out that the NSA performs about 240 million database searches per year. Noting that it reported 2,776 violations of privacy rules in a recent one-year period, it had an error rate of “about 0.001156666667 percent.”
“What the Church Committee revealed was that the intelligence community, which was supposed to be focused on foreign threats, was actually directly meddling in domestic issues,” Foust said in an interview. “What these (recent) disclosures show is that while the NSA does violate the rules, it also makes a good faith effort to try to minimize both the number of violations and their scope.”