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Anchored by Jake Tapper, The Lead airs at 4 p.m. ET on CNN.

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August 16th, 2013
06:42 PM ET

NSA audit contradicts Obama, reporter reveals thousands of NSA abuses

A week ago, President Barack Obama assured the U.S. that abuses weren't happening at the National Security Agency.

"If you look at the reports, even the disclosures that Mr. Snowden's put forward, all the stories that have been written, what you're not reading about is the government actually abusing these programs and, you know, listening in on people's phone calls or inappropriately reading people's emails. What you're hearing about is the prospect that these could be abused," Obama said last Friday.

"He defines abuse apparently quite narrowly," The Washington Post's Barton Gellman said in an interview with CNN's "The Lead with Jake Tapper."

Gellman produced an internal audit and other top secret documents from U.S. intelligence leaker Edward Snowden in Thursday's Washington Post.

Contrary to what Obama said, those documents show that the NSA broke privacy rules thousands of times a year – though maybe not by the administration's standards.

"If the employee of the NSA is trying to do his/her job, makes mistakes, or cuts some corners, or does the other things that led to these things, that's not abuse as they see it," said Gellman. 

The May 2012 NSA audit Gellman obtained counted 2,776 incidents in the preceding 12 months of unauthorized collection, storage, access to or distribution of legally protected communications.

Still, the infractions run across a spectrum from outright law-breaking, to typos that wrongly led to phone and e-mail intercepts, on Americans and foreign targets in the U.S.

"What you're hearing about is the prospect that these could be abused. Now part of the reason they're not abused is because they're - these checks are in place, and those abuses would be against the law, and would be against the orders of the FISC," Obama said last Friday.

The FISC, or the foreign intelligence surveillance court, is made up of judges who are supposed to stop abuses like the ones revealed in the audit. Why didn't they?

In yet another eye-opening report, The Washington Post got a statement from U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton, who heads up the FISC.

He wrote, in part, "the FISC is forced to rely upon the accuracy of the information that is provided to the court... The FISC does not have the capacity to investigate issues of noncompliance."

So in other words, the court that is supposed to stop these abuses, has to take the government's word that said abuses are not happening.

A lot of the defenders of the administration say 2,776 incidents over a one year period is a tiny percentage of the data the NSA searches and collects.

"You could look at it another way. You could say this is a case where the absolute number matters a lot. There are a billion passengers a year on airline flights. We only lose 1% of the luggage so that's 10 million," Gellman said.

"You have to decide whether this really matters absolutely, or whether you only care about, sort of, 'A for effort,'" said Gellman.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein has been criticized for not being enough of a watch dog for these programs.

"She said her committee needs to take much more proactive and extensive efforts to find out things the NSA is not reporting to her," said Gellman, who spoke with Feinstein for his story.

The Obama administration does report the aggregate number of abuses to Congress twice a year, said Gellman, but the information is opaque.

"When you try to get these reports under Freedom of Information, they have a headline, 'Statistical Data Involving Compliance Incidents,' then everything else below that is blacked out, and then there is a characterization, 'There were a small number of incidents,'" said Gellman. "They're not prepared to let us decide by reading ourselves what's small, and what's not."

Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall released a statement in reaction to Gellman's reporting, saying, "We believe Americans should know that this confirmation is just the tip of a larger iceberg."

Gellman said the administration is probably not involved in a cover up, but it is trying to obfuscate information surrounding NSA surveillance.

"They have done everything they can to avoid any particular granular information about what they do from coming into a
public debate that the president said he welcomed," said Gellman.

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