At least 12 employees with the National Security Agency have intentionally misused the government's surveillance authority in the last decade, according to an inspector general's report provided to Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.
These employees weren't surveying potential terrorists or enemies of the state - the targets of spying abuse, in a majority of the 12 violations, were the employees' significant others.
In one instance, a civilian NSA employee who suspected her husband had been unfaithful queried a foreign telephone numbers she'd discovered in her husband's cell phone. The query resulted in her husband's voice collection. The NSA inspector general determined a violation had occurred, referring the matter to the agency's general counsel, but the employee resigned before she was formally disciplined.
Other violations involved employees querying the names, telephone numbers, and email addresses of girlfriends, boyfriends, former lovers, and wives. In every case, the employees were either censured in some fashion, or they resigned before any disciplinary action could be imposed.
Despite the relative infrequency of violations, their disclosure is sure to throw kerosene on the smoldering debate surrounding the government's spying authority. The government surveillance programs overseen by the NSA have emerged as a source of controversy in the wake of their unauthorized disclosure in June by Edward Snowden, a former contractor with the agency.
Government officials have insisted that, despite any sporadic privacy violations, the programs were duly authorized by Congress and are rigorously overseen by all three branches of government.
On Thursday, Gen. Keith Alexander, the NSA's director,during a hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee to "step away from the sensational headlines" about spying abuses and "focus on facts," noting that only 12 willful privacy violations had been substantiated over the last 10 years.
Critics, however, say that concentrating only on violations misses a more fundamental problem. "The bigger concern is not with willful violations of the law, but rather with what the law itself allows," Jameel Jaffer, the deputy legal director with the American Civil Liberties Union, told Reuters.
"We shouldn't tolerate even one instance of misuse of this program," added Grassley in a statement. "Robust oversight of the program must be completed to ensure that both national security and the Constitution are protected."