Watchdog says NSA failed to follow procedures to protect Americans’ privacy
The National Security Agency (NSA) failed to follow its own policies when accessing sensitive data and communications on American citizens, according to an audit made available in a Monday report to Congress.
The audit from the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) criticized the NSA’s use of one section of the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act (FISA), which lays out the procedures for surveillance and collection of foreign intelligence information.
Section 702 of FISA allows federal agents to surveil suspicious, non-American actors on foreign soil without the approval of a court or a warrant.
But the section also allows agents to access sensitive information and communications of U.S. citizens if there is probable cause that they are agents of a foreign power or in contact with one.
In Monday’s report, the OIG said NSA failed to follow its own “procedural and policy requirements” on Section 702. The “evaluation revealed a number of concerns” related to queries for information from government databases on U.S. citizens suspected of being in contact with a foreign target. The queries can include names, email addresses or phone numbers.
The OIG made 13 recommendations to the NSA based on concerns including an inconsistent use of the query model, according to the report.
An NSA spokesperson said the agency “remains fully committed to the rigorous and independent oversight provided by the NSA Inspector General’s office.”
“NSA continues to employ measures to assist analysts in conducting their work compliantly with civil liberties and privacy protections,” the spokesperson told The Hill in a statement. “As the OIG included in its report, the Agency has in place multiple processes to aid in ensuring query compliance.”
Congress enacted FISA in 1978 to create guidelines for the government’s collection of foreign intelligence information following the Watergate scandal. In 2008, after 9/11, more amendments were made to FISA, including Section 702.
FISA came under increased scrutiny following the wiretapping of former Trump campaign aide Carter Page. Agents reportedly spied on Page while investigating Trump’s potential ties to the Russian government in lead-up to the 2016 election. The Justice Department’s inspector general in 2019 found multiple issues with the warrant application used to spy on Page.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, put in place to monitor the use of FISA, also found concerns with the FBI’s use of querying practices and released an opinion last year detailing the agency’s misuse of Section 702 as a violation of American’s Fourth Amendment rights.
–Updated at 4:01 p.m.