NEW YORK — The top deputy at the National Security Agency defended the organization’s spying activities Tuesday, asserting that, despite damaging leaks and media attention in recent months, the agency’s secretive operations exist only under close scrutiny from officials across the government.
“There’s no lack, there’s no dearth of insight into what the NSA does on a regular basis,” NSA Deputy Director John C. Inglis told an audience during a rare public appearance at New York University’s law school.
Mr. Inglis said he hoped to generate a deeper conversation than the “battle of sound bites” that have rocked the world’s media since the summer when Edward Snowden — the former NSA contractor now living in Russia — began leaking internal information about the far-reaching scope of the agency’s telephone and computer data collection activities in the United States and around the world.
The Snowden leaks exposed to the public how the NSA gathers and archives basic data from billions of phone calls coming into and out of the United States so that it may be quickly searchable in the event of terrorism-related investigations. The revelations have sparked strong criticism on Capitol Hill and outrage in foreign capitals ranging from Berlin to Brasilia.
Mr. Inglis, a top NSA official since the late-1990s, said Tuesday that the agency is actually far more concerned with civil liberties than has been suggested by critics.
Analysts working inside the NSA “care as passionately about civil liberties [and] national security both, as any of you might,” he said. “We agree with our harshest critics. We should not choose between those two. We must affect both and we need to be held accountable for them.”
He added that analysts working inside the agency believe deeply that their work is vital to U.S. national security.
“If I worry about anything in the midst of this dialogue, it’s that we’re causing them to reconsider whether that work is respected,” Mr. Inglis said. “They don’t want to be rewarded for that or remunerated in that with respect to money. But they do want to know that at the end of the day that work does make a difference in a way that’s appreciated by the nation.”
Eager to counter negative attention on the NSA during recent months, Mr. Inglis contended that the agency’s spying activities are considerably more well-known to officials within the U.S. government than has been reported.
He described the agency as having little legal wiggle room to conduct complex, legitimate and secretive spying activities on a rapidly evolving technological landscape around the world — activities that he said are vital to protecting the United States and its interests from the threat of terrorism.
There are “upwards of 300 people” inside the NSA focused exclusively and “on a full-time basis” on assuring that the agency’s operations do not breach U.S. laws, Mr. Inglis said.
“But NSA is not the fox watching its own hen house,” he said, adding that in addition to its own internal oversight program, the agency is subject to “very intrusive insight” from the Justice Department.
“I think that’s appropriate,” he said, adding that the NSA operations are also well-known to officials conducting oversight from Defense Department, the office of the director of national intelligence and, “of course you’ve got the courts that might oversee some of our authorities, the congressional intelligence committees, and various then extra-constitutional bodies like the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.”
“Add to that the Fourth Estate, which again we welcome, that intrusive look at what we do,” Mr. Inglis said.
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