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The National Security Agency (NSA) has breached privacy rules or acted outside its authority several thousand times since being granted sweeping new powers five years ago, the Washington Post reported on Thursday.
The paper said on its website the breaches had been revealed after analysis of an internal audit and other top secret documents, the details of which were made available to the Post by US whistle-blower Edward Snowden.
One of the documents cited by the Post showed that the NSA instructed staff to alter reports to the Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, replacing specific details with generic language, the report said.
The paper said on one occasion the NSA concealed the unintended surveillance of American individuals.
It cited an instance in 2008 when a “large number” of calls from Washington were monitored after a programming error mixed up the area code for the US capital - 202 - with the international dialling code for Egypt - 20.
The blunder was not revealed to the NSA's oversight staff, the Post report said.
The Post said that the NSA audit, dated May 2012, had numbered 2 776 incidents in the previous 12 months of “unauthorised collection, storage, access to or distribution of legally protected communications”.
Most of the cases were unintended while many involved failures of due diligence or violated normal operating procedure.
“We're a human-run agency operating in a complex environment with a number of different regulatory regimes, so at times we find ourselves on the wrong side of the line,” a senior NSA official speaking on condition of anonymity told the Post in response to the report.
President Barack Obama's administration has been forced onto the defensive since Snowden's initial revelations detailing the extent of the NSA's surveillance capabilities first emerged.
Obama last week pledged to overhaul US surveillance, promising greater oversight and transparency and insisting he had no interest in snooping on ordinary citizens.
The controversy has grown since Snowden, a former US government contractor who fled to Russia, revealed the sweeping aspects of US surveillance on citizens' Internet searches and telephone records. - Sapa-AFP