A court ordered the documents released.
The next clue that the NSA does not, in fact, believe these documents reflect favorably upon its performance is the timing of the release. They chose to make the reports public on Christmas Eve, knowing that this would minimize news coverage.
As one might expect of reports that the NSA fought to suppress and attempted to release with minimal attention from the press, the newly released documents are less an illustration of "the depth and rigor of NSA’s commitment to compliance" than the fact that the NSA has, by its own admission, broken the law in every period covered. And these are just violations they self-reported. The NSA construes its mandate so broadly that it doesn't regard logging every number I dial on my phone to be an instance of spying on a U.S. citizen. It continues to regard most of what Edward Snowden revealed to be perfectly legal and appropriate. Yet even with that expansive understanding of its powers, the NSA has not managed to stay within the laws and rules set for itself.
Its ongoing operations proceed with the expectation that laws will be broken every quarter, and that this is acceptable so long as the violations are logged and reported. It would be as if a journalist assured readers of the depth of his commitment to truth-telling by pointing to a backward-looking log documenting fabricated stories he wrote in every four-month period going back to 2001.
The NSA will demonstrate a commitment to lawfulness when it ceases to break laws.
The NSA's supposed emphasis on "accountability" falls apart rather quickly when one realizes what happens when its employees are caught breaking a law. Take a female analyst mentioned in a 2012 report. It explains that for two or three years, "she had searched her spouse's personal telephone directory without his knowledge to obtain names and telephone numbers for targeting." The report adds that "although the investigation is ongoing, the analyst has been advised to cease her activities." As Kevin Drum writes, "She was caught using NSA surveillance facilities to spy on her husband and was merely told to cease her activities? Wouldn't it be more appropriate to, say, fire her instantly and bar her from possessing any kind of security clearance ever again in her life? What am I missing here?"
Perhaps she knew too much to be fired.
After all, even apart from the lawbreaking and disregard for privacy, you'd think it would be a firing offense to waste time spying on one's lover instead of terrorists or foreign heads of state. Years of doing that wasn't enough for termination?
Surveying similar misdeeds, Kevin Williamson flags a larger problem it illuminates:
These actions do not represent mere violations of NSA policies... but willful violations of the law... If you, citizen, were caught illegally using an NSA database to check up on that girl you met on OkCupid, what do you think would happen?
Do you reckon that you’d get a cease-and-desist letter — or that you’d be scooped up by a team of thick-necked men with very short haircuts and dumped in the darkest oubliette Uncle Sam has available? ...This is an inversion of the right order. In a sane society, people entrusted with state power — from NSA agents down to traffic cops — would be held to a higher standard rather than a lower one, and sanctioned more severely for wrongdoing rather than less.
At The Intercept, Murtaza Hussain notes that "many of the reports appear to deal with instances of human error rather than malicious misuse of agency resources. Nonetheless, many of these errors are potentially serious, including entries suggesting that unminimized U.S. telephone numbers were mistakenly disseminated to unauthorized parties and that military personnel were given unauthorized access to raw traffic databases collected under the Foreign Intelligence Services Act."