The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) exceeded its surveillance authority of U.S. residents under a far-reaching telephone and Internet communications wiretap program, the U.S. Department of Justice said Thursday.
During routine oversight of the NSA surveillance program, DOJ and NSA officials "detected issues that raised concerns," the DOJ said in a statement.
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"Once these issues were identified, the Justice Department ... took comprehensive steps to correct the situation and bring the program into compliance," the statement added. "The Justice Department takes its national security oversight responsibilities seriously and works diligently to ensure that surveillance under established legal authorities complies with the nation's laws, regulations and policies, including those designed to protect privacy interests and civil liberties."
The DOJ statement came after a New York Times report Wednesday saying the NSA in recent months has exceeded congressional limits on the surveillance program. The Times report, quoting unnamed government officials, said the spying was "significant and systemic" in its over-collection of U.S. residents' phone calls and e-mail messages.
The NSA appeared to deny that it overstepped its authority. The agency is "committed to upholding the law," said spokeswoman Judith Emmel. "Our intelligence operations, including procedures for collection and analysis, are in strict accordance with U.S. laws and regulations."
NSA intelligence programs are subject to oversight from the DOJ, Congress, and the Office of the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, she added. "Our employees work tirelessly for the good of the nation, and serve this country proudly," she said.
The new information about the NSA surveillance program sparked criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the tech trade group, the Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA).
Earlier this month, the DOJ filed a request for the dismissal of a lawsuit against the NSA for the surveillance program. CCIA president and CEO Ed Black said he was disappointed that the DOJ under President Barack Obama continues to defend the program.
"The new administration is not just defending those policies, but taking them a step further," Black said in a statement. "In its April court brief, the Obama DOJ argued that the government is completely immune from litigation for illegal spying and even that it can never be sued for violating federal privacy laws with surveillance techniques."
The CCIA called on Obama's administration to reverse course.
"President Obama appreciates more than most people how the Internet can be used as a tool to allow greater participation in a democracy," Black said. "That same tool could also be the greatest innovation for surveillance and repression in the wrong regime. Defending practices like this sets a dangerous precedent down the road and makes it easier for a government to expand the programs from surveilling terrorists to surveilling political opponents."
The ACLU requested that Congress launch an investigation of government surveillance programs. Congress passed the FISA Amendments ACT last July, which gave the government new spying powers, the ACLU noted.
"Congress was repeatedly warned that this type of abuse would be the obvious outcome of passing the FISA Amendments Act," Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, said in a statement. "Congressional leadership promised after this law's passage that it would be re-examined. It's time to fulfill that promise and restore the checks and balances of our surveillance system. Warrantless surveillance has no place in an America we can be proud of."