The United States National Security Agency illegally intercepted thousands of e-mails from Americans with no connection to terrorism and misled the court about the scope of what it was doing, according to latest declassified documents.
Officials disclosed the history of that unlawful surveillance on Wednesday, releasing three partially redacted opinions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that detailed the judges' concerns about how the NSA had been siphoning data from the Internet in an effort to collect foreign intelligence.
The documents were released in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group based in San Francisco.
According to a redacted 85-page opinion by the chief judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the NSA may have been collecting as many as 56,000 "wholly domestic" communications each year.
"For the first time, the government has now advised the court that the volume and nature of the information it has been collecting is fundamentally different from what the court had been led to believe," John D Bates, the then surveillance court's chief judge wrote in his October 3, 2011 opinion.
US intelligence officials sought to portray the matter as a technical glitch that the intelligence agencies caught and fixed.
But in the court opinion, judges said the NSA repeatedly had misled them about the scope of what it was doing.
"The court is troubled that the government’s revelations regarding NSA’s acquisition of Internet transactions mark the third instance in less than three years in which the government has disclosed a substantial misrepresentation regarding the scope of a major collection programme," Bates wrote.
The latest revelations come amid growing criticism from members of Congress and privacy groups about the NSA surveillance programs and charges that the agency has far overstepped its bounds in collecting information on US citizens.
In a late night statement, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence strongly refuted media reports that the US has unfettered access to some 75 per cent of the country's online communication.
"The reports leave readers with the impression that NSA is sifting through as much as 75 per cent of the United States' online communications, which is simply not true. In its foreign intelligence mission, and using all its authorities, NSA "touches" about 1.6 per cent, and analysts only look at 0.00004 per cent, of the world's Internet traffic," ODNI said.
Image: A general view of the large former monitoring base of the U.S. intelligence organisation National Security Agency (NSA) in Bad Aibling south of Munich.