In dozens of cases, NSA personnel made careless use of the agency's extraordinary powers, according to individual auditing reports. One team of analysts in Hawaii, for example, asked a system called DISHFIRE to find any communications that mentioned both the Swedish manufacturer Ericsson and "radio" or "radar" — a query that could just as easily have collected on people in the United States as on their Pakistani military target.
The NSA uses the term "incidental" when it sweeps up the records of an American while targeting a foreigner or a U.S. person who is believed to be involved in terrorism. Official guidelines for NSA personnel say that kind of incident, pervasive under current practices, "does not constitute a . . . violation" and "does not have to be reported" to the NSA inspector general for inclusion in quarterly reports to Congress. Once added to its databases, absent other restrictions, the communications of Americans may be searched freely.
In one required tutorial, NSA collectors and analysts are taught to fill out oversight forms without giving "extraneous information" to "our FAA overseers." FAA is a reference to the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, which granted broad new authorities to the NSA in exchange for regular audits from the Justice Department and the office of the Director of National Intelligence and periodic reports to Congress and the surveillance court.
Using real-world examples, the "Target Analyst Rationale Instructions" explain how NSA employees should strip out details and substitute generic descriptions of the evidence and analysis behind their targeting choices.
"I realize you can read those words a certain way," said the high-ranking NSA official who spoke with White House authority, but the instructions were not intended to withhold information from auditors. "Think of a book of individual recipes," he said. Each target "has a short, concise description," but that is "not a substitute for the full recipe that follows, which our overseers also have access to."