Feinstein: National Security Agency never 'intentionally abused its authority'

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Friday that the National Security Agency (NSA) never “intentionally abused its authority,” following a report that the agency had broken its own privacy rules thousands of times in the past several years.

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Late Thursday, The Washington Post reported that the NSA had repeatedly overstepped its legal authority since its powers were expanded by Congress in 2008. The revelation came from documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Feinstein insisted, however, that the rules violations were not intentional and did not warrant indignation.

Most “compliance incidents,” she said, simply involve a person being surveilled abroad who then travels to the United States. Monitoring a person in the U.S. requires following a different process, and because the NSA cannot immediately tell if the person is in the United States, it could accidentally overstep its bounds.

“The majority of these ‘compliance incidents’ are, therefore, unintentional and do not involve any inappropriate surveillance of Americans,” Feinstein said.

Agency officials acted by "ending or adapting" the activity involved for each discovered incident, she said.

She reiterated that “the committee has never identified an instance in which the NSA has intentionally abused its authority to conduct surveillance for inappropriate purposes.”

Some of Feinstein’s Democratic colleagues disagreed with her position, however.

Sens. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who both sit on the Intelligence Committee, released a joint statement saying the new leaks vindicated past claims that “violations of [privacy] laws and rules were more serious than had been acknowledged.”

The senators also warned that “this confirmation is just the tip of a larger iceberg,” suggesting further leaks could be coming.

The senators called for greater transparency in the operations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and for the appointment of a public advocate to contest executive branch claims made before the court. In a press conference last week, President Obama promised to create such an advocate.