Oversight

NSA IG says expanded subpoena authorities could help oversight

NSA ft meade sign official nsa photo 

Robert Storch, inspector general for the National Security Agency, called for an expansion of his office's subpoena authority to compel telecommunications companies who send records to the government to participate in interviews about ongoing investigations and audits.

The NSA has come under fire from members of Congress and civil liberty groups over a June 2018 disclosure by the agency that "technical irregularities" led to the overcollection of hundreds of millions of phone records sent by telecommunications providers in violation of limits imposed by the 2015 USA Freedom Act.

At a Nov. 16 event hosted by the Project on Government Oversight, Storch did not confirm that an investigation of the matter is underway, but he said he has the power to subpoena documents from companies who work on or participate in NSA programs, but only limited ability "to compel people from outside the agency who are employed privately to talk to our people."

Storch said his personal view "is that it would be good to expand that, because there are … situations where you would want to be able to compel."

A bill that would expand IG testimonial subpoena powers to contractors, grant recipients and former federal employees was sponsored by Rep. Steve Russell (R-Okla.). It passed the House in September but remains pending in the Senate.

While NSA officials said they disclosed the problem and deleted the records as soon as they learned of them, the revelation led Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to write to Storch in August and request an investigation into how the collection occurred and how multiple telecommunications companies seemingly misinterpreted NSA records requests the same way.

"Vital questions remain about how the NSA collects sensitive information, as well as how the agency has addressed its latest admitted violations of the law and Americans' privacy," Paul said in a statement at the time.

Earlier this year, Storch made history by issuing the first ever unclassified version of the NSA's semi-annual report to Congress. In addition to detailing a range of IT and cybersecurity problems plaguing the agency, it also provided additional insight to the public on issues like the impact of foreign surveillance programs on domestic spying, basic information about conducted audits, the number of complaints his office received and how many were investigated and closed out.

While new for the NSA, Storch said it was very much in line with the work inspectors general at other agencies do, and the mere fact that the agency regularly traffics in classified matters doesn't mean auditors can't be more open about how they're holding officials accountable.

"Because so much of the stuff can't be disclosed publicly, I think it really is critically important that we be transparent where we can be so that the public knows at least that there is effective, independent oversight going on, even if we can't disclose everything that we're looking at," said Storch.

Storch also said is also looking at ways to declassify or provide summaries of other NSA products in the future, saying such disclosures should provide meaningful information to the public and not be reduced to "Swiss cheese" through redactions.

About the Author

Derek B. Johnson is a former senior staff writer at FCW.

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