Obama recommended a series of changes to surveillance programs – including more transparency and oversight – two weeks ago to allay concerns. But he failed to address calls by lawmakers and experts to overhaul Section 702 of the 2008 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Amendments. The law allows the NSA to search vast databases of individual Americans’ emails without court warrants.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who’s called for a special advocate to represent Americans’ privacy rights before the secret court, said the NSA mistake was a “highly intrusive breach.” He said it “shows once again the need for strong and effective oversight of government surveillance.”
“Now the question is how many other such unconstitutional practices occurred without the court knowing,” he said, “and without a special advocate to blow the whistle?”
In 2008, the NSA began collecting large swaths of emails that were to, or from, foreigners of interest or mentioned email addresses of foreigners of interest, according to officials who provided information to reporters Wednesday but weren’t authorized to speak publicly.
But the NSA was unable to segregate the emails of Americans.
“On occasion,” one of the officials said, “some of those might prove to be wholly domestic.”
About 250 million Internet communications were collected each year, according to the documents. As many as 56,000 were Americans’ emails.
The violation was discovered three years later as part of a routine oversight process that includes the NSA and the Justice Department. Last year, the NSA destroyed those emails.
“They were having a discussion and a light bulb went off on somebody’s head and said, ‘Oops, this may be a problem,’” an official said.