- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 17, 2013

The revelation that the National Security Agency broke court-imposed privacy rules thousands of times a year in snooping Americans’ phone and email records would have changed the outcome of last month’s House vote to defund the program, according to one legislator who was part of the effort.

“We only needed seven votes to switch and I think there were at least seven, probably more like 20-30, who had their concerns about the program but were prepared to give the intelligence agencies the benefit of the doubt,” Rep. Morgan Griffith, Virginia Republican, told The Washington Times after the NSA rules violations came to light.

The House in late July voted 217-205 to defeat an amendment that would have cut funds for domestic data gathering by the NSA except where based on individualized suspicion.

Mr. Griffith says that the intelligence community, which defended the program and worked to preserve it against the legislation onslaught, misled Congress.

“We were being told there were ‘some’ errors, like a few,” Mr. Griffith said, referring to sworn congressional testimony about the domestic programs from senior intelligence, FBI and Justice Department officials. “They gave everyone the impression these [errors] were very rare. If [my colleagues] had realized how many [violations of privacy protection or legal rules] there were, I think more than seven of them would have switched.”

The existence of the NSA’s phone-records collection program was leaked by former government contractor Edward J. Snowden earlier this year.

On Thursday night The Washington Post published another set of data it said it was given earlier in the summer from Mr. Snowden, which revealed that in the 12 months prior to May 2012, there were 2,776 incidents of unauthorized collection, storage, access to or distribution of legally protected data or communications — typically those between Americans or foreigners legally in the United States.

Most of the incidents recorded in the audit appeared to have been unintentional, although it is hard to be sure. The audit says detailed narratives about individual cases are available in a series of annexes which the Post did not publish.

Democratic U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado, both members of the intelligence committee who have followed the issue closely, said they are constrained by rules in what they can reveal, but said the public is right to be concerned.

“We believe Americans should know that this confirmation is just the tip of a larger iceberg,” they said in a joint statement.

President Obama has said he is open to Congress making changes to the Patriot Act, which the administration says authorizes its snooping in this area. But he laid out few specifics, and analysts say he is fighting a rear-guard action to preserve the programs in the case of rising opposition.

Charges that the government misled Congress and the public could hurt his case.

“I remain concerned that we are still not getting straightforward answers from the NSA,” Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, the Senate’s senior lawmaker, said Friday, vowing to hold hearings after Congress returns from its summer vacation.

Intelligence committee Chairwoman Sen. Diane Feinstein of California, by contrast, was much more supportive, saying her panel was kept fully informed of the NSA’s audit and oversight activities.

“The committee has never identified an instance in which the NSA has intentionally abused its authority to conduct surveillance for inappropriate purposes,” added Ms. Feinstein.

Nonetheless, she said she would step up the committee’s oversight activities, pledging “more routine trips to NSA by committee staff and committee hearings at which all compliance issues can be fully discussed.”

Civil liberties advocates were incandescent with outrage.

“The rules around government surveillance are so permissive that it is difficult to comprehend how the intelligence community could possibly have managed to violate them so often,” said ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer.

He called the numbers “jaw-dropping.”

Mr. Griffith, the Virginia Republican, said he could not understand how — if the NSA broad programs, according to controversial figures released by the administration, had provided leads or otherwise helped in only 54 different terrorist cases  — there could be so much erroneous collection.

“2776 is a very big number compared to 54,” he said. “You’d have to be wearing Rose-tinted spectacles not to wonder whether [the violations] really were all inadvertent.”

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