Documents released Wednesday show the National Security Agency improperly collected phone records four months after it said it had fixed technical problems that caused another similar collection of unauthorized and inaccurate data that violated federal law.
The internal documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union show the NSA in October 2018 received data from a phone company in violation of limits set by Congress. The ACLU obtained the records in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.
The revelation of another problem with the NSA's call records program comes as it is set to expire at the end of this year unless an increasingly critical Congress agrees to extend it.
"These documents further confirm that this surveillance program is beyond redemption and a privacy and civil liberties disaster," Patrick Toomey, staff attorney with the ACLU's National Security Project, said in a statement. "The NSA's collection of Americans' call records is too sweeping, the compliance problems too many, and evidence of the program's value all but nonexistent. There is no justification for leaving this surveillance power in the NSA's hands."
The disclosures of the once-secret bulk collections program by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden spurred Congress to set limits on the intelligence agency's collection of call "metadata" in 2015. The agency has since been allowed to request specific records as part of an investigation as long as the information was retained by U.S. telecommunications companies, including AT&T and Verizon.
This is the second time the NSA has publicly acknowledged it improperly collected phone records. The NSA previously received phone records it was not authorized to collect in February 2018 and that because it couldn't distinguish what was authorized, it would delete the more than 600 million records collected since 2015. The agency said the "root cause" had been addressed.
The heavily redacted documents released Wednesday appear to be an internal regular report to an intelligence oversight board that detail the Oct. 12, 2018, discovery of an "anomaly" that provided unauthorized phone records starting Oct. 3, 2018. Details about the problem, including when it was fixed and which company turned over the information, was redacted.
On Wednesday, the NSA said in a statement that though it had fixed earlier technical issues, it had found additional "data integrity and compliance concerns caused by the unique complexities of using company-generated business records for intelligence purposes."
The statement adds: "Those data integrity and compliance concerns have also been addressed and reported to NSA's overseers, including the congressional oversight committees and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court."
The documents also shed more light on the February 2018 collection of unauthorized data and shows that NSA sought data about a "foreign power engaged in international terror" but that it received data that was "inaccurate" and "beyond that which NSA sought."
The NSA declined to comment further on the incidents because they said it would reveal classified operational details.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who has been critical of the NSA surveillance program, said the revelation is further evidence of the need to end the program.
"Every new incident like this that becomes public is another reason the massive surveillance program needs to be permanently scrapped," Wyden said in a statement Wednesday. "But it is unacceptable that basic information about the program is still being withheld from the public."
Wyden said it's been seven weeks since six members of the Senate Intelligence Committee asked the NSA director for a public update, "but there has been only silence. Congress cannot debate the reauthorization of these sweeping authorities without a bare minimum of transparency."
The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board has been reviewing the NSA's collection of phone records under the 2015 federal law, "including the publicly disclosed challenges NSA has encountered in implementing the program," said spokeswoman Jen Burita. The board is responsible for protecting Americans against abuses by spy agencies. It notably concluded after the Snowden disclosures that the NSA's phone surveillance program was illegal.
Burita said in a statement to The Associated Press that "the board looks forward to providing a detailed account and timeline of these issues later this year as Congress considers whether to reauthorize the program" and intends to make this available to the public as much as is possible.