Sept. 10, 2013, 4:58 p.m. EDT
NSA violated privacy protections, officials say

By Siobhan Gorman and Devlin Barrett
WASHINGTON — The National Security Agency’s searches of a database containing phone records of millions of Americans violated privacy protections for years by failing to meet a court-ordered standard, intelligence officials acknowledged Tuesday.

They said the violations continued until a judge ordered an overhaul of the program in 2009.

The revelations called into question NSA’s ability to run the sweeping domestic surveillance programs it introduced more than a decade ago in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks. Officials said the violations were inadvertent, because NSA officials didn’t understand their own phone-records collection program. (Read the Director of National Intelligence’s statement on the document release.)

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“There was nobody at the NSA who had a full understanding of how the program worked,’‘ said an intelligence official.

Top U.S. officials, including NSA Director Keith Alexander, have repeatedly reassured lawmakers and the public that the phone-records program has been carefully executed under oversight from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court court.

“This is not a program where we are out freewheeling it,” Alexander said in June. “It is a well-overseen and a very focused program.”

Until Tuesday, officials hadn’t described the period in which the program repeatedly violated court orders. They made public the violations as part of a court-ordered release of documents stemming from lawsuits by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union.

The release included roughly 1,800 pages of documents, including orders from the secret court and government correspondence with the court.