NSA Analysts Spying on Spouses, Partners

The Inspector General of the National Security Agency has sent a letter to Sen. Charles Grassley about cases where NSA personnel have used their ability to listen in on phone calls and other communications to spy on girlfriends, boyfriends, husbands and wives. It’s happened 12 times since 2003. Some examples:

In one case revealed by Ellard, an NSA employee for five years snooped on the phone calls of nine female foreign nationals “without a valid foreign intelligence purposes.” In another, 2011 instance, an NSA employee admitted it was “her practice” to eavesdrop on foreign phone numbers “she obtained in social settings” in order to ensure she was not talking to “shady characters.” Both employees resigned before any disciplinary action could be taken…

Among other examples cited in Ellard’s letter:

In 2011, an NSA employee acknowledged that “out of curiosity” he had tried to listen in on the phone calls of his girlfriend, a foreign national. The agency’s system blocked him from doing so, but the employee did retrieve “metadata”– records of time, date and duration of the girlfriend’s phone calls. The subject’s actions were referred to the Justice Department, which declined prosecution.

In 2005, the NSA discovered that another NSA employee eavesdropped for a month “without an authorized purpose” on the phone calls of his foreign national girlfriend. The employee was trying to determine if she was “involved” with any foreign officials or engaged in other activities that “might get him in trouble.” The employee retired before the investigation into his activities was finished.

In 2004, a NSA employee retrieved data on a foreign telephone number she had discovered on her husband’s cell phone. The case was referred to the Justice Department for prosecution, but the employee resigned before any NSA discipline could be imposed. The letter does not address whether there was a prosecution effort.

So no disciplinary action in any of these cases, apparently. Every single one of them should have been prosecuted. Both the Patriot Act and FISA have specific criminal penalties for illegal surveillance. 12 cases in 10 years may not sound like much, but the danger here is that these relatively low-level analysts have access to this kind of data on everyone. How tempting it must be to use it not only against love interests but against political enemies. And no, that isn’t paranoid or unlikely; our government has already done it multiple times in the past.

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  • eric

    Meh, 12 times in 10 years is a pretty low rate of corruption. Yes, these actions are bad and indefensible. But if we had one incident of police corruption per 30,000 officers per year, we’d be jumping for joy.

  • Olav

    You mean, it’s happened 12 times since 2003 that people got caught and that it was acknowledged.

    How can you know this is not the tip of the iceberg?

  • Twelve cases in ten years THAT WE KNOW OF. How many cases do we not know of?

  • Brandon

    This is kind of to be expected. It’s more an indictment of a stupid system that puts that power in anyone’s hands than it is a problem with NSA workers being a bunch of jerks.

  • I used to date someone who had dated a guy who was a line tech at Bell Atlantic. One day the guy called me up and told me that I shouldn’t be dating her because she was a bad person (he was full of shit on that) and after I got off the phone with him I called her. She filed a complaint and the guy very nearly lost his job and retirement. He was no longer allowed access to phone lines and his career flat-lined. If the NSA did that sort of thing it would prolly cut down on the abuse of the system.

  • sqlrob

    I was going to say what Gregory did. I don’t see how we can assume it was just 12 in any way shape or form. The majority of the examples of “the system working” is people coming forward years after the fact. Relatively few are ones getting caught.

  • Now, look, if Brenda didn’t want the Big Brother spying on her, she shouldn’t have dumped me. That’s just common sense.

  • eric

    @2, @3, @6: okay, assume it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Assume for every case caught, there’s a hundred uncaught. I’l repeat my comment: if we had one hundred incidents of police corruption per 30,000 officers per year, we’d be jumping for joy.

  • Hey, if it was OK for Ah-nold’s character do this to Jamie Lee Curtis’ in True Lies, then….?

  • trucreep

    My question to your arguments is “so what?”

    I get what you’re saying, but that has nothing to do with this insane abuse. Any abuse is unacceptable, especially from this agency, as they operate in secret and have ZERO accountability. Your analogy would have more weight if this was an agency operating in the public and had REAL congressional oversight, and REAL oversight by a REAL court.

  • Chiroptera

    Eamon Knight, #9:

    Heh. I was going to bring that movie up myself. That scene really, really creeped me out when I saw that movie.

    (I was even more creeped out in Superman Returns when Superman used his x-ray vision to stalk the now married Lois Lane and her family.)

  • sqlrob


    Snowden was only a fraction of the abuses, just one person. Any police department would be ecstatic with one in hundreds of thousands, right?

  • brandondavis

    When I was still in the Army during the heyday of OIF and OEF, you’d be surprised how many SOF folks were trying to pressure the special SIGINT guys to use their special access to data to see if their wives or girlfriends were cheating on them while they were deployed. The ones I knew all resisted the pressure, basically standing firm with “I could go to jail for that”, but I suspect one or two relented just to curry favor with guys they looked up to.

  • exdrone

    I note the reliance in the IG’s report on the term “foreign national” to identify the victims. This is probably intended to re-qualify the incidents from “real problems” to “unfortunate misdemeanors” since they didn’t happen to “real Americans”.