As Edward Snowden's trove began to leak, President Obama was quick to reassure Americans that Congress and the courts kept the NSA's powers and activities in check. But newly declassified documents from the 2009 probe into the agency's wiretapping show that—in 2009, at least—the NSA's surveillance system had grown so large and unwieldy, no one actually understood it. "There was no single person who had a complete technical understanding," government lawyers told the courts at the time. Because no one else could comprehend it, the surveillance court judges at the time were relying on the NSA itself to explain what it was doing, which resulted in them approving activities that were far more intrusive than they realized, the AP reports.
Congress also didn't understand the NSA, so members also didn't know what they were approving, lawyers determined at the time. The documents reveal the full scope of the abuses that led to the 2009 crackdown—of the almost 18,000 phone numbers on the government's watch list, only about 2,000 actually met FISA's standard for "reasonable articulable suspicion" for targeting, reports the Wall Street Journal. Following these findings that the NSA "frequently and systematically violated" its own procedures, the judge ordered an overhaul of the system. The White House says regulations have now been tightened, and software on the NSA's servers stops the agency's analysts from snooping illegally. But, notes the AP, these are the same checks that were supposed to stop someone like Snowden from stealing vast troves of classified documents. And we all know how that turned out. (Read more NSA stories.)