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NSA report reveals some agents abused power, while Obama says improvements needed

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General Keith Alexander
General Keith Alexander

Some of the National Security Agency's employees and contractors overstepped their authority and deliberately spied on Americans sporadically throughout the past decade, according to Bloomberg. The news undermines the NSA's repeated assertions that it doesn't target people in the US unless they are part of a foreign terror investigation, and that it hasn't willfully invaded privacy. The findings are said to come from a classified report by the inspector general for the NSA, an independent watchdog that monitors the agency's practices. But the alleged abuses were reportedly few and far between: "one case per year" of "intentionally inappropriate actions" using NSA surveillance programs, as Bloomberg characterizes the comments of one US official.

"rare instances of willful violations of NSA’s authorities have been found."

An NSA spokesperson gave a statement to Bloomberg that didn't dispute the report's findings, saying: "Over the past decade, very rare instances of willful violations of NSA’s authorities have been found." According to one US official, the people responsible for the violations were reportedly NSA employees, as well as outside contractors. And in patriotic flair, Bloomberg's source said that people who committed the violations weren't trying to undermine the system, but rather an "overzealous" effort to prevent another September 11th-style terrorist attack on the US.

Yet, the findings could hardly come at a worse time for the NSA, adding to the growing list of flat-out contradictory assertions made by the leadership of the US intelligence community regarding domestic surveillance efforts. A mere three weeks ago, NSA director General Keith Alexander commented on the integrity of his agency's surveillance at a panel discussion at Fordham University in New York City. "Yes people make mistakes; there'll be compliance issues," Alexander said. "But no one has willfully or knowingly disobeyed the law or tried to invade your civil liberties or privacy." On the contrary, the NSA inspector general's report is said to document at least a handful of such willful abuses.

Separately, President Obama gave a video interview to CNN published today, in which the president said that despite the NSA's own recent admission it collected thousands of Americans' emails without foreign terror connections, he was confident no one at the NSA was "trying to abuse this program or listen in on people's email." But the president also acknowledged the persistent cloud of public concern surrounding government surveillance. "There's no doubt that, for all the work that's been done to protect the American people's privacy, the capabilities of the NSA are scary to people," he told CNN. "What I recognize is that we're going to have to continue to improve the safeguards." Just if and when the government improves these safeguards remains to be seen, of course. And the initial surveillance reforms that the intelligence community has undertaken at Obama's behest — such as a new Tumblr — don't inspire much more confidence in any potential new privacy measures.