SAY HELLO TO ‘OVERCOLLECTION’…. Abuse of the already-weakened protections relating to the NSA’s eavesdropping program? You don’t say.

The National Security Agency intercepted private e-mail messages and phone calls of Americans in recent months on a scale that went beyond the broad legal limits established by Congress last year, government officials said in recent interviews.

Several intelligence officials, as well as lawyers briefed about the matter, said the N.S.A. had been engaged in “overcollection” of domestic communications of Americans. They described the practice as significant and systemic, although one official said it was believed to have been unintentional.

The legal and operational problems surrounding the N.S.A.’s surveillance activities have come under scrutiny from the Obama administration, Congressional intelligence committees and a secret national security court, said the intelligence officials, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because N.S.A. activities are classified. Classified government briefings have been held in recent weeks in response to a brewing controversy that some officials worry could damage the credibility of legitimate intelligence-gathering efforts.

For what it’s worth, the Justice Department conceded that there may have been problems — which is to say, the NSA apparently went too far in its surveillance — and officials “detected issues that raised concerns.” The Office of the Director of National Intelligence alluded to “inadvertent mistakes,” and the NYT report said officials claim to have “resolved” the issues by changing the program.

Whether the apparent abuses were deliberate or unintentional is hard to say; the report, for understandable reasons, is a little vague. Whether the agency “actively listened in on conversations or read e-mail messages of Americans without proper court authority, rather than simply obtained access to them,” is also unclear.

But the part of the piece that’s bound to raise eyebrows on the Hill points to “earlier domestic-surveillance activities” that included an attempt to “wiretap a member of Congress, without court approval, on an overseas trip.” The wiretap never actually happened, but the NSA apparently believed the unnamed congressman, as part of a congressional delegation in the Middle East, may have come into contact with someone with ties to terrorism.

Of course, the fact that the NSA even considered oversight-free surveillance of a member of Congress has caused something of a stir. As Kevin Drum noted, this might be a silver lining of the apparent abuse: “[M]aybe this will finally motivate Congress to take NSA surveillance more seriously. Having one of their own members come within a hair’s breadth of being an NSA target ought to concentrate their minds wonderfully, if anything will.”

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.