Commentators as diverse as Ben Wittes, Kevin Drum and Jennifer Rubin have tried to understand NSA rules violations in recent days in part by attempting to compare the number of violations to the overall number of queries, as if the percentage of errors is a useful metric to use.
The NSA itself is encouraging the same analytic framework:
In a conference call with reporters Friday, NSA Compliance Director John DeLong repeatedly said that the agency takes compliance seriously and that the audit's existence proved that. "People need to understand there's no willful violations here," he said. The mistakes are in the "parts-per-million or parts-per-billion range," he said. "We really do look for them, detect them and correct them."
Added DeLong: "No one at NSA, not me or anyone else, thinks they are okay."
When pressed, he said there have been willful violations, but the number is "minuscule . . . a couple over the past decade."
He also said the agency makes 20 million queries a month of its databases.
For purposes of this article, let's set aside the incompleteness of the recent report on NSA rule-breaking, and the certainty that there are many more incidents of rule-breaking that we know nothing about. Let's also assume, for the sake of argument, that the NSA has yet to commit any "abuses," and discuss their surveillance generally, rather than just the phone dragnet.
What I want to focus on is the strangeness of comparing the number of NSA queries to number of violations -- as if a low percentage of violations is enough to reassure us about NSA behavior.
According to the Washington Post, some NSA violations involve individuals whose cell phones are were surveilled legally when they were overseas, but who enter the U.S. without the NSA realizing it. There is information we don't have about these violations, and it's easy to sometimes misunderstand the complicated, fragmentary information that we do have, but as best I can tell, one "violation" in this case would seem to mean that a single individual was affected.