WASHINGTON — The National Security Agency declassified three secret court opinions Wednesday showing how it scooped up as many as 56,000 e-mails and other communications by Americans not connected to terrorism annually over three years, revealed the error to the court, and then fixed the problem.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper authorized the release.
The opinions show that when the NSA reported its inadvertent gathering of American-based Internet traffic to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in 2011, the court ordered the agency to find ways to limit what it collects and how long it keeps it.
Three senior US intelligence officials said Wednesday that officials realized the extent of its inadvertent collection of Americans’ data in September 2011. One of the officials said the problem became apparent during internal discussions between NSA and Justice Department officials about the program’s technical operation.
‘‘They were having a discussion, and a light bulb went on,’’ the official said.
The problem, according to the officials, was that the top secret Internet-sweeping operation, which was targeting metadata contained in the e-mails of foreign users, was also amassing thousands of e-mails that were bundled up with the targeted materials. Because many web mail services use such bundled transmissions, the official said, it was impossible to collect the targeted materials without also sweeping up data from innocent domestic users.
Officials said that when they realized they had an American communication, it was destroyed. But it was not clear how they determined whom an e-mail belonged to or whether any NSA analyst had read the content of the e-mail. The officials said the bulk of the information was never accessed.
As soon as the extent of the problem became clear, the officials said, the Obama administration provided classified briefings to both Senate and House intelligence committees within days. At the same time, officials also informed the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which later issued the three 2011 rulings released Wednesday as part of the government’s latest disclosure of documents.