Senators Would Boost Independence of NSA Watchdog

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

In another ripple effect from the Edward Snowden leaks of a year ago, the National Security Agency could find its inspector general gaining broadened independent powers under a Senate bill introduced on Thursday.

The NSA Internal Watchdog Act would end NSA’s power to appoint its own internal watchdog and instead require a presidentially appointed and Senate-confirmed official to encourage greater independence from agency management.

The bipartisan bill was introduced by Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.; Susan Collins, R-Maine; Jon Tester, D-Mont.; Barbara Mikulski, D-Md.; and Dan Coats, R-Ind. It comes amid debate in the intelligence community and among whistleblower advocates over whether Snowden -- the former Booz Allen Hamilton employee under contract with NSA and now facing federal charges from his hiding place in Russia—could plausibly have taken his concerns about NSA communications monitoring and violations of Americans’ privacy to the in-house inspector general hotline.

Current NSA IG George Ellard, at a rare public talk, told a Georgetown University Law Center gathering in February that Snowden should have come to his office with his complaints about NSA’s domestic surveillance programs rather than leaking documents to the press.

The bill, which Coats and Mikulski had been pursuing for a year, would also:

  • Require the IG to conduct annual reviews of whistleblower protections for agency employees and contractors, and provide recommendations to improve those mechanisms;
  • Strengthen legal counsel in the office to help ensure effective audits;
  • Give the IG subpoena power over employees who have left the agency and NSA contractors;
  • Enhance oversight by requiring the IG to provide a description to Congress of any instances in which the Defense secretary prohibits an IG investigation from moving forward for reasons of protecting national security interests, and;
  • Mandate that any IG audit or investigation include an assessment of a program’s impact on civil liberties and submit recommendations for improving protections for civil liberties.

“I don’t know how you can be an independent watchdog if you owe your job to the head of the agency,” said McCaskill, chairwoman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Financial and Contracting Oversight.

“The NSA IG should enjoy the same independence the IGs of the Central Intelligence Agency and other federal agencies already exercise in performing oversight,” said Collins, who serves on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. “We must strike the right balance between protecting our national security and protecting our civil liberties,” Tester said.

Coats noted that “While there is no evidence the current inspector general is beholden to the director of the NSA, or overlooked abuse in any way, the lack of trust between the American people and the NSA requires the establishment of an independent actor to investigate, inspect, and audit without waiting for direction or approval from the NSA’s senior leadership.”

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