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Ever since Edward Snowden revealed the extent of the National Security Agency’s collection of our phone and online communication data, the Obama Administration has been telling us not to be concerned about it. We have been assured that we aren’t being spied on, that everything is being done in accordance with the law, that Congress and the courts know all about it, and that the NSA folks are all fine upstanding patriots (except, of course, for that former NSA contractor Edward Snowden).

Last week President Obama himself said that he is “comfortable” in the knowledge that the surveillance programs “are operating in a way that prevents abuse.” His problem, he said, was how to “make the American people more comfortable.” And he added: “If the American people examined exactly what was taking place, how it was being used, what the safeguards were, . . .they would say, you know what, these folks are following the law and doing what they say they’re doing.”

Well, not quite. A few days after Obama’s press conference we did learn a little more about what was taking place. The Washington Post reported that the NSA “has broken privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times each year since … 2008.”  This information is not disputed; it comes from an internal audit of the NSA itself, available on the Washington Post website here.

Most of the infractions, according to the newspaper’s summary, “involve unauthorized surveillance of Americans or foreign intelligence targets in the United States, both of which are restricted by statute and executive order. They range from significant violations of law to typographical errors that resulted in unintended interception of U.S. e-mails and telephone calls.”

It’s possible that the President did not see this audit and did not know about these thousands of violations until the Washington Post brought them to light. But he has certainly seen it now. He has spoken frequently about the need to maintain due process and accountability. And it is within his power as chief executive to hold accountable whoever is responsible for these violations of law.

Somebody at NSA, probably several somebodies, deliberately violated the law. Other somebodies carelessly, recklessly, incompetently, allowed these violations to continue for years, or just didn’t care about our privacy. If Snowden can be charged with espionage, those somebodies should be punished too. Those who deliberately violated the law can be removed from their positions and prosecuted. Those who merely screwed up can be fired for incompetence. If civil service regulations or contractual obligations make it impossible for them to be fired, they can be transferred to other jobs, blocked from promotion and removed from positions of future responsibility.

Such action by the president would punish wrong-doers and make clear that Obama means what he says about the rule of law and accountability. It might even make Americans a bit more “comfortable.”

Anybody worried at NSA?

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