The federal government used the Patriot Act more than 500 times from 2005 through 2011 to secretly obtain records from businesses, including bulk telephone and Internet data, and never once did the secret court charged with oversight turn them down, according to the latest document dump from U.S. spy agencies.
More than 1,000 pages of documents released late Monday show the secret court repeatedly chastised the government for overstepping its authority in collecting data on Americans’ emails, but never shut down the program.
The National Security Agency “exceeded the scope of authorized acquisition continuously during the years of acquisition under these orders,” Judge John D. Bates wrote in a heavily redacted, 117-page opinion released as part of the documents.
The email program was revealed by former government contractor Edward Snowden, but the latest declassified records shed new light on the legal basis for it, including NSA collection of the addresses of senders and recipients, and the subject line and time of each email.
The secret court said that for a period of time, virtually every record generated by the email program included data that hadn’t been authorized. At the beginning, the NSA failed to properly control the information it obtained on Americans, allowing it to be shared outside of the small group that was supposed to have access.
“The government has provided no meaningful explanation why these violations occurred, but it seems likely that widespread ignorance of the rules was a contributing factor,” Judge Bates concluded.
Despite those criticisms, he allowed the program to continue.
It was shut down in 2011, reportedly because President Obama concluded it wasn’t producing enough valuable intelligence. Just months before that decision, the documents show, the intelligence community was still assuring judges that the program was vital to national security.
Michael Birmingham, a spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Security, said there were several reasons for ending the program.
“The decision was made in 2011 to cease collecting email and Internet content from Americans in bulk due to operational and resource reasons,” he said.
In his opinion, Judge Bates attributed the consistent failures of NSA officials to abide by the rules to “poor management, lack of involvement by compliance officials, and lack of internal verification produces — not bad faith.”
The NSA did not respond to requests for comment.
Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s national security program, said the revelations show an agency that has systematic trouble following the rules.
“Either the NSA is trying to comply with the court’s order and it’s absolutely incapable of doing so, which quite worries us, or it’s not really trying that hard,” she said. “None of those answers really inspires a lot of confidence.”
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., the federal government has claimed broad legal authority to collect records in its hunt for terrorists, including the power to demand that major Internet and telephone companies turn over records on their customers’ communications.