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The Best Excuses NSA Employees Had for Spying on Their Love Interests

"I was searching my ex-girlfriend's email address for 'practice.'"
September 27, 2013, 5:01pm
Photo via David Jones/Flickr

Arguably the creepiest revelation yet about the National Security Agency's pervasive spying activities—and the bar is pretty high here—is the one about NSA staffers using the agency's incredible intelligence gathering abilities to spy on significant others.

So-called LOVEINT allegedly isn't very common—an official told the Journal that it was no more than a "handful" of cases, but take that with a grain of salt—but it does blow a huge hole in the NSA's attempt to portray programs like PRISM as vast data collection programs designed to find patterns in anonymous metadata. Whether or not it applies to PRISM specifically, it's now clear that the NSA is fully capable of accessing the communications, including audio of phone calls, from any old person.


Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) recently petitioned the NSA to release information about LOVEINT activities, and the NSA's Inspector General responded with a letter detailing 12 specific incidents ranging from 2003 to 2011. As the Post's Timothy Lee notes, all but one targeted foreign nationals (a key point, as the NSA's spying on communications involving a foreign national is legal in many situations as long as it's authorized), and seven of 12 caught employees resigned before receiving discipline. The rest were docked pay and security clearances, demoted, or otherwise had their careers negatively affected. None, however, faced criminal charges.

Lee's post outlines the worst cases, and is worth the read, especially because in some cases subjects were explicitly listening to phone calls. But I thought I'd pull out the best (read: most ridiculous) excuses that the staffers had for their misconduct.

By the way, the Inspector General also noted that two cases more cases are open and another investigated, which makes you wonder: Are the NSA's spying systems have so little oversight that tapping an ex's phone is the same as checking up on her Facebook page? Sure seems like it. Anyway, on with the excuses:

I was "curious" about what my girlfriend was up to

This case involves a civilian employee in a foreign location. From the report:

In 2011, before an upcoming reinvestigation polygraph, the subject reported that in 2004, "out of curiosity," he performed a SIGINT query of his home telephone number and the telephone number of his girlfriend, a foreign national. The SIGINT system prevented the query on the home number because it was made on a US person. The subject viewed the metadata returned by the query on his girlfriend's telephone.


While the matter was referred to the Department of Justice, DoJ declined action, and the person in question retired before being disciplined.

To protect security, I wanted to make sure my girlfriend didn't discuss my travel plans

Between 2005 and 2006, a civilian employee "queried in two SIGINT systems the telephone numbers of two foreign nationals, one of whom was his girlfriend." It was found that he searched her telephone number on "many occasions" and her name twice, although he testified that he only had "one" hit from those searches. The other national was a foreign national language instructor.

The man also searched his own name, which he said he did to make sure no one was discussing his travel plans. As to why he was searching for his girlfriend's and another person's phone numbers, he wanted to "ensure that there were no security problems." The man resigned before discipline could be given.

I was searching my ex-girlfriend's email address for "practice"

This is perhaps my favorite: In 2005, a military member searched SIX of his ex-girlfriend's email addresses (side note: who has that many emails?) on his first day with access to the NSA's SIGINT system. Adding to the problem was the fact that the woman was an American citizen, which is quite illegal.

In explanation, the man "testified that he wanted to practice on the system and had decided to use this former girlfriend's email addresses. He also testified that he received no information as a result of his queries and had not read any US person's email." The man lost his security clearance, was demoted to a lower pay grade, and received half pay for two months. He was not prosecuted in military courts.


I want to make sure I'm not dating "shady characters"

In 2011, a civilian employee in a foreign location was busted for searching the telephone number of her foreign-national boyfriend, among others, and reviewed the collected data to make sure she wasn't dating weirdos.

According to the report, "the subject asserted that it was her practice to enter foreign national phone numbers she obtained in social settings into the SIGINT system to ensure that she was not talking to 'shady characters' and to help mission."

She resigned before discipline was administered.

I want to make sure my girlfriend isn't fooling around with local officials, for security purposes

In 2003, a civilian employee in a foreign location "tasked SIGINT collection of the telephone number of his foreign-national girlfriend" for "approximately one month." Why? Because he wanted to find out if she was "involved with any local government officials or other activities that might get him in trouble."

The NSA's records aren't clear on whether or not the case was referred to the DoJ, and either way, the subject retired before the investigation was finalized.