If you accept the premise that our country was founded on liberty, then what’s been happening at the National Security Agency is a challenge to that core principle. I say this because as conservatives we fight taxes or spending because they are proxies for freedom. If I can’t decide where to spend my money or have to take more out of my pocket at the end of the year to send to Washington, my freedom in that year has been curtailed. Yet many of my conservative friends who would howl in protest to more spending or taxes have been relatively quiet on the NSA issue. I don’t think they fully recognize the ways in which civil liberty is just as important a branch of freedom as the economic legs they readily contest.
In fact with each new story about the National Security Agency, I’m reminded of a quote from Thomas Jefferson, “When people fear the government, there is tyranny. When the government fears the people, there is liberty.” To me the surveillance programs and data collection going on at the NSA are a challenge to liberty, and even cross the line of liberty that the Constitution was built to protect. Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, who authored the original PATRIOT Act, has been outraged by the ways in which current NSA activity goes well beyond what they intended in that bill. Accordingly, he has an excellent, large scale reform bill that I hope we have the chance to pass this spring.
There is still a question that remains though, and that is if we did pass Sensenbrenner’s reforms, how do we know they will be enforced at the NSA? You may tell your kids they need to be doing their homework, but any parent with teenagers knows it’s also wise to check by the room on occasion to make sure they are doing just that. Similarly, business managers believe line workers will always get it right, but they check in, monitor, and have controls in place to make sure that assumption is valid.
The NSA, with or without reforms, is no different. This is especially true given the NSA’s recent admission that violations of surveillance rules are attributable to “poor management, lack of involvement by compliance officials and lack of internal verification procedures, not by bad faith.” With work as sensitive as the NSA’s, someone needs to be checking, and its present structure is an affront to both common sense and anyone who believes in a chain of command.
For that reason I’ve introduced a bill that would strengthen the NSA’s internal oversight by giving more independence to its Inspector General. It’s not a big bill, but a small piece in the puzzle of changes that I think are vital to making sure that NSA’s work is consistent with the platform of liberty that the Founding Fathers created.
Currently the NSA’s Inspector General, the person in charge of investigating violations and keeping the Agency in line, is handpicked and appointed by the Agency’s Director. This is significant because at every other major security agency – the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, and Central Intelligence Agency – the Inspectors General are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. In each of these agencies, they had the wisdom to move oversight from the operational chain of command. The NSA plays just as significant a role in intelligence as these agencies do and yet does not have the same effective oversight model. Only at the NSA do they suppose that the person hired to look both deeply and critically at the operations of the agency should be hired and fired by the very person who will be most affected by those findings. I don’t know of anyone who thinks that one can be independent in their assessments if they are wholly dependent economically and career wise as a result of the consequence of their assessments. If your mortgage payment depended on keeping your job, would you at all couch critical discoveries?
History also says change here is an important step. When the CIA came under fire in the 1980s for the Iran-Contra scandal, one of the steps Congress took was to make their Inspector General an independently appointed position. Strengthening their internal oversight and accountability procedure was the right move, and recently former CIA Inspector General Britt Snider joined the call for this step to be taken at the NSA.
With all this in mind, I introduced, HR 3436, which would make the NSA’s Inspector General a position appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Colleagues from both sides of the aisle are joining me in supporting this bill, and I’d ask that you encourage your representative to do the same.