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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Under increasing pressure to justify electronic surveillance programs that at times capture communications of American citizens, the U.S. National Security Agency went to unusual lengths on Friday to insist its activities are lawful and any mistakes largely unintentional.
In a sign of how much heat it has taken since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden started disclosing details of highly classified U.S. surveillance programs, the ultra-secretive intelligence agency held a rare conference call with reporters to counter public perceptions that NSA transgressions were willful violations of rules against eavesdropping on Americans.
The NSA's presentation was an attempt to calm the latest firestorm over documents disclosed by Snowden. The Washington Post late Thursday reported that the NSA had broken privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times each year since 2008, citing an internal agency audit and other top secret documents.
"These are not willful violations, they are not malicious, these are not people trying to break the law," John DeLong, NSA director of compliance, told reporters.
NSA employees know their actions are recorded and the agency's culture is to report any mistakes, he said, repeatedly stressing that "no one at NSA thinks a mistake is OK."
Snowden, who was granted temporary asylum in Russia this month, gave information about secret NSA programs that collect phone, email and other communications to several media organizations, which published stories about them starting in June. His disclosures provoked an intense debate over privacy rights versus national security needs in the United States and several other countries, including Great Britain, Germany and Brazil.
The uproar led to a series of rare public comments by normally publicity-shy NSA officials, who have written opinion pieces in the media and repeatedly said transparency was a positive development.
"We're working on the release of more documents soon," DeLong said, without elaborating.
As DeLong explained that the NSA had rigorous internal measures to avoid, suppress and destroy intelligence inadvertently collected on Americans, leaders of both congressional intelligence committees issued statements strongly supporting NSA programs and the agency's efforts to comply with the law and regulations.
"The committee has never identified an instance in which the NSA has intentionally abused its authority to conduct surveillance for inappropriate purposes," Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, said.
Representative Mike Rogers, a Republican and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, described errors reported in the Post story as "human and technical," which he said were "unfortunately inevitable in any organization and especially in a highly technical and complicated system like NSA."
But Representative Dutch Ruppersberger, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, called the reports of privacy violations by the NSA "incredibly troubling" and said he had ordered his staff to conduct a review.
He said, however, "the information we have received so far does not show any intentional abuse or misuse of NSA's authorities."
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, said he planned to hold a hearing to examine reports of unauthorized surveillance by the NSA. "I remain concerned that we are still not getting straightforward answers from the NSA," he said.
DeLong, who acknowledged that public debate was taking place in a "highly charged" atmosphere, said willful violations were "extremely rare" and that mistakes can lead to the removal of database access for an NSA employee.
DeLong said that NSA analysts make 20 million queries of intelligence databases on average each month, and that the number of mistakes are a tiny portion of legitimate queries.
He gave an example of how one mistake was handled. In a case where NSA allegedly stored 3,000 records, apparently related to Americans and legal immigrants, longer than the rules allowed, the information was not misused and subsequently deleted, he said.
"President Obama has long advocated greater transparency, stronger oversight and other reforms to give Americans confidence that our intelligence programs strike the right balance between protecting our national security and the privacy of our citizens," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
He said the White House would work with Congress on reforms "to further improve oversight and strengthen public confidence in these operations that are so critical to American national security."
Reporting by Tabassum Zakaria and Mark Hosenball; Additional reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Eric Beech