(CN) - A Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge slammed the National Security Agency in 2009 for an apparent "flagrant violation" of the privacy rights of U.S. citizens through nearly three years of unauthorized searches of telephone records, according to newly declassified documents.
The Director of National Intelligence released the top-secret documents on Tuesday in response to a California lawsuit filed after details of a massive surveillance program were leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
The newly revealed documents include a furious Jan. 28, 2009, top-secret order signed by Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court Judge Reggie Walton slamming government lawyers for "what appears to be a flagrant violation" of a court order to protect the privacy rights of U.S. citizens.
This refers to an "alert list process" that the NSA developed to pull up telephone identifiers believed to have met a "reasonable articulable suspicion" standard, the documents show.
Violations of that standard continued from May 2006 to January 2009 on a "daily basis," the judge found.
In the five-page order, Walton demands that someone with the "authority to speak on behalf of the Executive Branch" answer what caused the violations and how long they had been happening.
The government submitted a 110-page report
on Feb. 12, 2009, acknowledging that it lacked a "shared understanding" of the program.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, the digital privacy group that filed the case that led to these documents' disclosure, released a statement calling that a "breathtaking admission: the NSA's surveillance apparatus, for years, was so complex and compartmentalized that no single person could comprehend it."
Judge Walton's order responding to the government's lengthy report on March 2, 2009, summarizes that only 1,935 of the 17,835 identifiers on the alert list met the reasonable suspicion standard.
"The government has compounded its non-compliance with the court's orders by repeatedly submitting inaccurate descriptions of the alert process to the FISC," he wrote.
Walton allowed the program to continue, however, based on "the government's repeated representations" that the metadata collection "is vital to national security."
The American Civil Liberties Union's staff attorney Alex Abdo said in a statement, "The documents provide further evidence that secret and one-sided judicial review is not an adequate check on the NSA's surveillance practices."
He is one of the lawyers fighting a separate lawsuit
in Manhattan for an injunction curbing the NSA's massive telephone data collection.
"The so-called 'compliance incidents' are troubling, but this is a program that should never have been authorized to begin with," Abdo said. "The NSA should end the bulk collection of information about Americans."