WASHINGTON - The National Security Agency declassified three secret court opinions Wednesday showing how in one of its surveillance programs it scooped up as many as 56,000 emails and other communications by Americans not connected to terrorism annually over three years, revealed the error to the court - which ruled its actions unconstitutional - and then fixed the problem.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper authorized the release, part of which Obama administration officials acknowledged Wednesday was prodded by a 2011 lawsuit filed by an Internet civil liberties activist group.
The court opinions show that when the NSA reported its inadvertent gathering of American-based Internet traffic to the court in September 2011, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court ordered the agency to find ways to limit what it collects and how long it keeps it.
In this Aug. 26, 2012 file photo, Verizon special service technician Mark Rose adjust cables attached to a framework in a Verizon network room at the Main Post Office in New York. Three senior U.S. intelligence officials said Wednesday that the NSA realized that when it was gathering up bundled Internet communications from fiber optic cables, with the cooperation of telecommunications providers, that it was often collecting thousands of emails or other Internet transactions by Americans who had no connection to the intended terror target being tracked.
In an 85-page declassified FISA court ruling from October 2011, U.S. District Judge James D. Bates rebuked government lawyers for repeatedly misrepresenting the operations of the NSA's surveillance programs.
"This court is troubled that the government's revelations regarding NSA's acquisition of Internet transactions mark the third instance in less than three years in which the government has disclosed a substantial misrepresentation regarding the scope of a major collection program," Bates wrote in a footnoted passage that had portions heavily blacked out in the government's disclosure.
The NSA had moved to revise its Internet surveillance in an effort to separate out domestic data from its foreign targeted metadata - which includes email addresses and subject lines. But in his October 2011 ruling, Bates ruled that the government's "upstream" collection of data - taken from internal U.S. data sources - was unconstitutional.
Three senior U.S. intelligence officials said Wednesday that national security officials realized the extent of the NSA's inadvertent collection of Americans' data from fiber optic cables in September 2011. One of the officials said the problem became apparent during internal discussions between NSA and Justice Department officials about the program's technical operation.
"They were having a discussion and a light bulb went on," the official said.
The problem, according to the officials, was that the top secret Internet-sweeping operation, which was targeting metadata contained in the emails of foreign users, was also amassing thousands of emails that were bundled up with the targeted materials. Because many web mail services use such bundled transmissions, the official said, it was impossible to collect the targeted materials without also sweeping up data from innocent domestic U.S. users.