The USA Freedom Act isn’t the only bill making its way through the legislative process on Capitol Hill that is focused on reforming the National Security Agency. While discussion about the Freedom Act got started in the Senate Intelligence Committee, a bipartisan group of five senators also introduced new legislation looking to add accountability to the NSA by changing the appointment process for its inspector general.
Currently, NSA’s IG is hired directly by the agency’s director. But the NSA Internal Watchdog Act aims to make that position presidentially-appointed and Senate-confirmed.
Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.; Susan Collins, R-Maine; Jon Tester, D-Mont.; Barbara Mikulski, D-Md.; and Dan Coats, R-Ind., co-sponsored the bill.
McCaskill, who has devoted much of her time in the Senate to inspector general policy, was particularly critical of the current NSA IG hiring process, claiming it lacks independence.
“I don’t know how you can be an independent watchdog if you owe your job to the head of the agency,” McCaskill said. “This bipartisan legislation would inject real independent oversight into the agency and help strengthen accountability over its activities.”
The legislation doesn’t stop there, though. Along with the new appointment requirements, it would mandate the NSA IG to conduct annual reviews of whistleblower policy, strengthen legal counsel for effective audits and give the IG subpoena power over former employees and contractors.
“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, a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. “This bill makes sure that happens.”
This isn’t the first appearance of the NSA Internal Watchdog Act in Congress. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., introduced a version of the bill in the House in late April, saying “the NSA needs a watchdog with teeth.”
Both the NSA Internal Watchdog Act and the Freedom Act, which looks to end NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records, stem from concerns about a lack of oversight of NSA domestic surveillance activities, which were made public last year by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Sponsors of the NSA Internal Watchdog Act in both the House and Senate say these changes would strike a needed balance between national security and civil liberties in the post-Snowden era.
“This bipartisan bill is about common sense reform of the NSA to better protect U.S. national security as well as the privacy and civil liberties of American citizens as enshrined in the Constitution,” Mikulski said. “It is vital that the NSA has an objective inspector general to perform investigations and oversight with total independence. The smart reforms included in this legislation will strengthen oversight and accountability of the NSA while protecting its core mission which remains vital to keep America safe.”