WASHINGTON — Lawmakers and privacy advocates called Friday for reforms and greater transparency in National Security Agency operations in response to reports that the secretive agency repeatedly violated privacy rules over the years.
The reaction came after the Washington Post reported the violations, citing an internal audit and other top-secret documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Most of the thousands of infractions each year since Congress granted the agency broad new powers in 2008 involve unauthorized surveillance of Americans or foreign intelligence targets in the United States, both of which are restricted by statute and executive order.
The documents, provided earlier this summer to the Post by Snowden, who was granted temporary asylum in Russia earlier this month, include a level of detail and analysis that is not routinely shared with Congress or the special court that oversees surveillance.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, said, ‘‘Press reports that the National Security Agency broke privacy rules thousands of times per year and reportedly sought to shield required disclosure of privacy violations are extremely disturbing.’’
She noted the law requires violations be reported to Congress and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. She said Congress should take steps to ensure violations are not repeated.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, who has complained that officials have not been truthful in discussing the scope and effectiveness of the NSA’s surveillance programs, said, ‘‘I remain concerned that we are still not getting straightforward answers from the NSA.’’
He said he will hold another hearing on the issue and will demand ‘‘honest’’ answers from the intelligence community.
‘‘Using advanced surveillance technologies in secret demands close oversight and appropriate checks and balances, and the American people deserve no less than that,’’ Leahy said.
‘‘The revelations make clear that our system of checks and balances has failed,’’ said Alexander Abdo, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union. ‘‘Congress is not exercising meaningful oversight of the NSA, the secret court that rules on surveillance applications does not believe it has the capacity to scrutinize the government’s practices, and the public has been kept almost entirely in the dark.’’
The New York-based Brennan Center for Justice said the leaked documents ‘‘reveal that the NSA’s violations range from serious breaches of the law to careless errors.’’ It noted that the internal audit exposed more than 2,700 violations from 2011 to 2012, ‘‘many of which resulted in illegal surveillance of Americans.’’
This surveillance includes several cases of ‘‘unauthorized interception and access to US phone calls and e-mails,’’ the center said, despite the previous insistence of the NSA and the Obama administration that rigorous oversight measures were in place.
Obama has repeatedly said that Congress was thoroughly briefed on the programs revealed by Snowden in June, but some senior lawmakers said they had been unaware of the NSA audit until they read the news on Friday. The previous disclosures said the programs vacuum up vast amounts of metadata — such as telephone numbers called and called from, and the time and duration of calls — from most Americans’ phone records, and scoop up global Internet usage data.
White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest said Friday the documents showed that NSA’s Compliance Office, established in 2009, ‘‘is monitoring, detecting, addressing, and reporting compliance incidents,’’ and that ‘‘the majority of the compliance incidents are unintentional.’’
In a statement from Martha’s Vineyard, where the president is vacationing, Earnest added that the administration is ‘‘keeping the Congress appropriately informed of compliance issues as they arise.’’
Some congressional leaders defended the program. Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Intelligence, said human error was inevitable and ‘‘there was no intentional and willful violation of the law.’’
But the top Democrat on the committee, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, called the new disclosures ‘‘incredibly troubling.’’ He said he had instructed his staff ‘‘to thoroughly review and evaluate these allegations.’’
Privacy advocates agreed more oversight is needed.
“The most recent revelations paint a disturbing picture of misconduct at the NSA,’’ said Faiza Patel, codirector of the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program. “Even the secret court charged with reviewing NSA operations has conceded that it doesn’t have the capacity to supervise the agency’s vast intelligence operations. It’s time for a fundamental overhaul of how the NSA operates.’’