In August the Wall Street Journal reported that NSA employees had, on several occasions, channeled their agency's spy-on-ordinary-Americans capabilities to… spy on ordinary Americans (with whom they were romantically involved). You know the old saying: if you love someone, collect metadata on their phone calls and read their emails with wanton abandon.
Although the practice isn't frequent, it has its own spycraft label: LOVEINT. If anyone wants to write a rom com with that title, too bad because I'm already working on it (suggested tag line: "Love is blind. The panopticon isn't." Backup tag line: "Wil[ful violation of U.S. government protocol] they or won't they?").
Anyway, a government official estimated in August that there have only been "a handful" of cases in the past decade. GOP Sen. Charles Grassley was like, "Um, okay, you need to be more clear, NSA; what if the 'handful' in question is contained within a frost giant's massive hand":
The American people are questioning the NSA and the FISA court system. Accountability for those who intentionally abused surveillance authorities and greater transparency can help rebuild that trust and ensure that both national security and the Constitution are protected.
Grassley asked for clarification on several topics: the specific details of the willful misconduct, the job titles of those who'd committed it, how the misconduct was discovered, and whether or not the misconduct was met with disciplinary action. In response, NSA inspector general Dr. George Ellard penned a letter in which he stated that there have been only 12 "instances of intentional misuse" of the SIGINT authorities — which is 12 too many, obviously.
You can read the entire letter here; here are some horrible highlights:
- In 2011, one civilian employee admitted to performing a SIGINT query of his girlfriend's home number and cell number "out of curiosity." Just wondering if I can invade this civilian's privacy illegally! Oh, looks like I can! Cool, great, hey, who is she calling? Just curious.
- In 2004, a civilian employee "tasked" a foreign number she found in her husband's cell phone because she worried that he was cheating on her. How would you confront someone after discovering that? "I am breaking up with you because you cheated on me; my evidence was obtained by illegally using a massive secret governmental surveillance organization to listen to the phone calls of your mistress. YOU ARE A DECEITFUL SACK OF SHIT!"
- In 2003, a female government employee told her coworker that she suspected that an NSA civilian employee with whom she was having sex was listening to her telephone calls. She was right! He had also listened to the phone calls for eight other female foreign nationals from 1998 to 2003. What a guy.
As the Atlantic Wire points out, this figure was only revealed after Snowden's leaks on the agency; it's pretty much inconceivable that the government would have admitted to this abuse had it not been for Snowden. Furthermore, this report fails to take into account "similar incidents where the offender got away with it"; I wouldn't be surprised if the real figure were much higher.
Of the twelve who were caught snooping, seven resigned before the NSA could follow through with disciplinary action.