As Congress addresses the multiple scandals created by the National Security Agency’s poorly controlled ability to intercept every kind of electronic communication at home or abroad, it should rectify two principal problems.
First, it should rescind the NSA’s court-granted authority for bulk collection of all American telephone records and restore the legal requirement that it can only collect such records when it is pursuing a specific investigation.
Second, it should strengthen congressional and executive branch oversight of the NSA.
As recommended by 1st District Rep. Mark Sanford, R- S.C., and the other Republican members of the South Carolina legislative delegation, Congress should grant independent status to the NSA inspector general by making the position a presidential appointment requiring Senate approval.
As recommended by President Barack Obama, it should allow the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to appoint independent legal counsel to address constitutional issues raised by executive branch requests for authority to conduct surveillance requiring court approval. At present, the court only hears from one side when the NSA or other executive branch agency makes a request for new surveillance powers. The court’s ability to ensure that the requested powers are consistent with law and the Constitution would be improved by hearing arguments against as well as arguments for any new powers.
Finally, the administration should strengthen its own oversight powers over the NSA and the intelligence community.
New reporting requirements are needed to address procedures designed to minimize intrusions into the privacy of individuals in the United States as well as leaders of allied nations.
The NSA has already taken steps to improve its own inter-agency security in the wake of former contractor Edward Snowden’s disclosures. Of course that is a classic case of bolting the barn door after the horse escapes. But it is nonetheless necessary as part of a reform of the NSA.
Reform legislation aimed at providing NSA accountability is moving forward in the House and Senate with bipartisan support. But all the oversight in the world will not keep our liberties safe if the NSA is allowed to continue bulk collection of information on Americans who are entitled to meaningful privacy protections.