America's national spy agency has made a rare public appearance to justify controversial electronic surveillance programs, insisting its activities are lawful and any mistakes largely unintentional. The ultra-secretive National Security Agency held a rare conference call with reporters over the weekend to counter public perceptions that NSA transgressions were willful violations of rules against eavesdropping on Americans.
America's national spy agency has made a rare public appearance to justify controversial electronic surveillance programs, insisting its activities are lawful and any mistakes largely unintentional.
The ultra-secretive National Security Agency held a rare conference call with reporters over the weekend to counter public perceptions that NSA transgressions were willful violations of rules against eavesdropping on Americans.
The move was a sign of how much heat the agency has taken since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden started disclosing details of highly classified US surveillance programs, and an attempt to calm the latest firestorm over documents disclosed by Snowden.
The Washington Post late Thursday reported the NSA had broken privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times each year since 2008, citing an internal agency audit and other top secret documents.
"These are not willful violations, they are not malicious, these are not people trying to break the law," John DeLong, NSA director of compliance, said.
NSA employees know their actions are recorded and the agency's culture is to report any mistakes, he said, repeatedly stressing that "no one at NSA thinks a mistake is OK."
Snowden, who was granted temporary asylum in Russia this month, made public information about secret NSA programs that collect phone, email and other communications.
His disclosures provoked an intense debate over privacy rights versus national security needs in the United States and several other countries, including Great Britain, Germany and Brazil.
The uproar led to a series of rare public comments by normally publicity-shy NSA officials, who have written opinion pieces in the media and repeatedly said transparency was a positive development.
"We're working on the release of more documents soon," DeLong said, without elaborating.
Willful violations 'extremely rare'
Leaders of two US congressional intelligence committees issued statements strongly supporting NSA programs and the agency's efforts to comply with the law and regulations, as DeLong explained that the NSA had rigorous internal measures to avoid, suppress and destroy intelligence inadvertently collected on Americans.
"The committee has never identified an instance in which the NSA has intentionally abused its authority to conduct surveillance for inappropriate purposes," Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, said.
Representative Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, described errors reported in the Post story as "human and technical," which he said were "unfortunately inevitable in any organisation and especially in a highly technical and complicated system like NSA."
But Representative Dutch Ruppersberger, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, called the reports of privacy violations by the NSA "incredibly troubling" and said he had ordered his staff to conduct a review.
He said, however, "the information we have received so far does not show any intentional abuse or misuse of NSA's authorities."
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said he planned to hold a hearing to examine reports of unauthorised surveillance by the NSA.
"I remain concerned that we are still not getting straightforward answers from the NSA," he said.
DeLong, who acknowledged that public debate was taking place in a "highly charged" atmosphere, said willful violations were "extremely rare" and mistakes can lead to the removal of database access for an NSA employee.
DeLong said NSA analysts make 20 million queries of intelligence databases on average each month, and that the number of mistakes are a tiny portion of legitimate queries.
"President Obama has long advocated greater transparency, stronger oversight and other reforms to give Americans confidence that our intelligence programs strike the right balance between protecting our national security and the privacy of our citizens," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
He said the White House would work with Congress on reforms "to further improve oversight and strengthen public confidence in these operations that are so critical to American national security."