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Championing Responsible National Security Policy

A Q&A with the NSA’s Internal Watchdog

Robert Storch has a big job to do: be the watchdog ready to police one of America’s most secretive intelligence outfits, the National Security Agency. When Storch was confirmed as the NSA’s Inspector General at the end of last year, he became the agency’s first independent appointment in that role. Storch was first nominated to lead the office by President Obama, but not confirmed until after his nomination was re-upped by President Trump.

Previous inspectors general at the agency were appointed by the NSA’s director—and as the Project On Government Oversight revealed in 2016 the job’s most recent occupant, George Ellard, was removed amid allegations of whistleblower retaliation. (An external review by three Inspectors General substantiated the claim, but a later Defense Department review reversed the finding.

Some NSA programs came under intense scrutiny and underwent reforms in recent years following former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations about the agency’s spying practices.

However, a transparency report released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence earlier this month showed a three-fold increase in the number of U.S. call records collected by the agency in 2017 compared to the prior year.

Storch was a longtime federal prosecutor and Deputy IG for the Department of Justice before de-camping for the NSA. He also helped create the government’s Whistleblower Ombudsperson program while serving as the chair of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency’s Whistleblower Ombudsman Working Group.

In the emailed Q&A below, POGO talked with Storch about his vision for providing oversight over the NSA.

Andrea Peterson: How do you view the NSA IG’s role in protecting whistleblowers? What steps are you taking to foster an environment where those who witness misconduct feel safe reporting it?

Robert Storch: Our guiding principle on this is clear: Whistleblowers perform an important service to the NSA and the public when they come forward with what they reasonably believe to be evidence of wrongdoing, and they never should suffer reprisal for doing so. I believe that the NSA OIG has an important role to play in ensuring that people have information regarding their rights and protections when they come forward with information, and in investigating both underlying disclosures of potential wrongdoing and any allegations of retaliation against someone who has appropriately reported their concerns. Given the size and complexity of the Agency, it is particularly important as its OIG that we help to foster a climate in which people feel comfortable coming forward with such information so that we can look into it and take any actions that are warranted. We have already taken steps to do this through expanding the information available to the workforce, including by adding a Whistleblower Protection page to our internal website, which includes frequently asked questions for whistleblowers and a link to a video in which I discussed their importance at a recent Agency-wide “Meet the IG”-type Town Hall event. We also have added a link to the OIG Whistleblower Coordinator, a new position that I created here at the OIG to ensure that people have a point of contact to whom they can turn for information about their rights and protections. We are working on expanding our public-facing website, and will have substantial information about whistleblower rights and protections on it as well.

AP: How do you expect your office to work with leaders on Capitol Hill on oversight issues? What issues do you expect to be most important in that relationship?

RS: As the NSA’s first Presidentially appointed, Senate confirmed Inspector General, I appreciate the importance of keeping both the Agency and the Congress fully and timely informed regarding our work. I look forward to a robust relationship with leaders on Capitol Hill to provide information that I hope will be helpful to the Congress in carrying out its constitutional oversight and legislative responsibilities. As is the case with most relationships, I think communication is the key, and my office will do everything possible to foster interactions that assist the Congress in its important work.

AP: Historically, many of your office's findings have not been made public due to the clandestine nature of some NSA programs. Do you have plans to change that? If so, how?

RS: Much of the information regarding the nature of the NSA’s work is, of course, highly classified, and cannot be publicly released. However, I believe it is very important that the public know that the NSA OIG is actively engaged in conducting effective, independent oversight that detects and deters waste, fraud, abuse, and misconduct, and promotes the economy, efficiency, and effectiveness of Agency operations. In that regard, we are working on the first unclassified version of our Semiannual Report to Congress for the period that concluded at the end of March, and I am looking forward to releasing that publicly. As I mentioned above, we also are working on expanding our public-facing website, which will contain much more information about the OIG and its work.

AP: Revelations about some NSA data collection and surveillance programs, such as those related to FISA, have faced significant public scrutiny—and in some cases reform—in recent years. How can the IG help reassure the public about the Agency’s compliance with civil liberty and privacy protections involving such programs?

RS: The NSA OIG is actively involved in oversight of the NSA’s intelligence activities in order to help ensure that the Agency’s activities are carried out consistently with all applicable requirements and civil rights and civil liberties. In fact, the legislative history makes clear that my position was elevated to PAS in 2014 in order to make sure that my office had the independence necessary to fully carry out its important oversight work in this regard. As I mentioned above, we here at the OIG are exploring new avenues to get out the word about our work, and we will be as transparent as possible in informing the public about our work so it is aware that there is effective, independent oversight being conducted by the OIG.