WASHINGTON — Some workers at the National Security Agency intentionally misused the government’s secret surveillance systems at least 12 times over the past decade, including instances when they spied on spouses, boyfriends or girlfriends, according to embarrassing new details disclosed by the agency’s inspector general. In nearly every case, the workers were allowed to retire before they could be punished.
In addition to the 12 historical cases, authorities are investigating two other suspected violations and reviewing a third allegation for possible investigation, the inspector general, George Ellard, told Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, in a letter released late Thursday.
Senior national security officials and some U.S. lawmakers have said such cases were exceedingly rare considering the breadth of the NSA’s surveillance programs and reflect how seriously the government monitors use of its systems for potential abuses.
“Where (a media report) says we’re sweeping up the communications of civilians overseas that aren’t targets of collection systems is wrong,” the NSA’s director, Army Gen. Keith Alexander, told senators Thursday. “If our folks do that, we hold them accountable.”
At least six times the cases were reported to the Justice Department for possible prosecution, Ellard’s letter said. In some cases, U.S. prosecutors declined to take action but in nearly every case the employees were allowed to retire without punishment. In one case, a worker was suspended without pay then retired; in another case, a worker’s promotion was cancelled; in two cases, military employees suffered a reduction in rank, extra duty and brief reduction in salary for two months.
Public concerns about how telephone and Internet surveillance data is handled by the NSA have intensified in the wake of leaks about the agency’s programs by former contract employee Edward Snowden. With the Senate readying to consider new limits on the NSA’s spying programs, national security officials have sought to boost confidence in their procedures. Senior officials have said they moved quickly to report and correct internal problems that led to the NSA’s accidental collection of 56,000 emails and other communications by Americans, and they insisted that willful abuse of surveillance data by officials is almost non-existent.
Grassley, who had asked Ellard last month to provide more information about the 12 violations, urged robust oversight of the secret programs. “We shouldn’t tolerate even one misuse of this program,” he said.
Several cases clearly showed government officials using the surveillance system to probe for information about spouses or paramours. During a 2011 polygraph test, an official acknowledged tapping into surveillance data about his foreign girlfriend’s telephone number in 2004. The official also tried to retrieve data about his own phone but was prevented because internal mechanisms prevented queries on domestic phone numbers without authorization. The matter was referred to the Justice Department. The official retired in 2012 before internal disciplinary action could be taken.
In another case, the foreign girlfriend of a U.S official reported her suspicions that the official was listening to her telephone calls. An internal investigation found that the official had made internal surveillance queries on the phones of nine foreign women without authorization and had at times listened in on some phone conversations. The same official also collected data on a U.S. person’s phone.
The case was referred to prosecutors and the official resigned before internal discipline could be imposed.