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Editorial: Nobody watching America's terror watchers

President Barack Obama during a news conference at

President Barack Obama during a news conference at the White House, where he talked about surveillance by the National Security Agency. (Aug. 9, 2013) Credit: EPA

The more that leaks out about the National Security Agency's electronic surveillance programs, the harder it becomes to take any comfort from President Barack Obama's assurances that the privacy of the American people is being respected.

The latest damning revelation is that the NSA violated privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority 2,776 times in one year while sweeping up records of Americans' phone calls and intercepting the Internet communications of people outside the country. That's the alarming picture that emerged from a May 2012 internal NSA audit that the Washington Post published based on information from former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, now living in Russia.

The oversight provided by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and Congress is insufficient because both rely on the NSA to report any unauthorized surveillance. But when the agency inappropriately intercepts the phone records and emails of Americans, inadvertantly or because of technical glitches, while targeting suspected foreign terrorists, it considers that "incidental," and not a violation that must be reported.

The surveillance court is the first line of defense against abuse, but its chief judge, Reggie B. Walton, said it can't independently verify how often the NSA breaks the rules, or confirm that the violations were just mistakes. Reports to Congress are scrubbed of details; even the number of Americans whose communications are illegally intercepted is not reported. So Obama's plea for trust based on the "strong oversight by all three branches of government and clear safeguards to prevent abuse and protect the rights of the American people" isn't so comforting.

NSA snooping too often goes beyond what the law allows, so more rigorous oversight is imperative. The time has come to reset the balance between security and privacy.