Civil liberties advocates were incandescent Friday at reports that National Security Agency eavesdroppers broke rules or overstepped their legal authority thousands of times every year while implementing the broad, suspicion-less data-gathering programs exposed by leaker Edward J. Snowden.
"The rules around government surveillance are so permissive that it is difficult to comprehend how the intelligence community could possibly have managed to violate them so often," ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer said.
He called the numbers "jaw-dropping."
A Top Secret internal NSA audit, leaked by Mr. Snowden to freelance Barton Gellman earlier this summer and published online by The Washington Post Thursday night shows that, in the 12 months prior to May 2012, there were 2,776 incidents of "unauthorized collection, storage, access to or distribution of legally protected communications" — those between Americans or foreigners legally in the United States.
"Most were unintended," The Post reported. "Many involved failures of due diligence or violations of standard operating procedure."
The news is likely to heighten public mistrust of the way officials have described the NSA programs Mr. Snowden exposed.
In June, officials from the NSA, FBI, Justice Department and the office of the director of national intelligence testified before two House committees.
Deputy Attorney General James Cole pledged to be "as transparent ... as we possibly can" about the programs, describing an extensive system of safeguards and oversight he said kept the agency on the straight and narrow.
"Every now and then, there may be a mistake," Mr. Cole said in sworn testimony.