WASHINGTON — Some National Security Agency analysts deliberately ignored restrictions on their authority to spy on Americans multiple times in the past decade, contradicting Obama administration officials' and lawmakers' statements that no willful violations occurred.
"Over the past decade, very rare instances of willful violations of NSA's authorities have been found," the NSA said in a statement to Bloomberg News. "NSA takes very seriously allegations of misconduct, and cooperates fully with any investigations — responding as appropriate. NSA has zero tolerance for willful violations of the agency's authorities."
The incidents, chronicled in a new report by the NSA's inspector general, provide more evidence that U.S. agencies sometimes have violated legal and administrative restrictions on domestic spying, and may add to the pressure to bolster laws that govern intelligence activities.
The inspector general documented an average of one case per year over 10 years of intentionally inappropriate actions by people with access to the NSA's vast electronic surveillance systems, according to an official familiar with the findings. The incidents were minor, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified intelligence.
The deliberate actions didn't violate the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act or the USA Patriot Act, the NSA said in its statement. Instead, they overstepped 1981 Executive Order 12333, issued by President Ronald Reagan, which governs U.S. intelligence operations.
The actions, said a second U.S. official briefed on them, were the work of overzealous NSA employees or contractors eager to prevent any encore to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The agency has taken steps to ensure that everyone understands legal and administrative boundaries, whom to consult when questions arise, and the consequences of violations or willful ignorance, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the inspector general's report is classified. The report was provided to the congressional intelligence committees, according to administration officials.