The National Security Agency on Wednesday appointed a new advocate to address civil liberties concerns in its agency as directed by President Barack Obama in August, while the president signaled Congress must make the next move on surveillance reform during his State of the Union address.
Obama spoke very briefly about surveillance during his address Tuesday, repeating his promise to work with Congress to reform surveillance programs as part of his message that "America must move off a permanent war footing" while still pursuing terrorist networks.
"The vital work of our intelligence community depends on public confidence, here and abroad, that privacy of ordinary people is not being violated," Obama said.
New NSA Civil Liberties and Privacy Officer Rebecca Richards previously worked as senior director for privacy compliance at the Department of Homeland Security, according to a statement from NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander on Wednesday.
"As rules and oversight evolve over time, adding a single official who is dedicated to these issues will help us stay on top of changes and bring new perspectives to how we can best consider civil liberties and privacy while conducting our mission," Alexander said.
The move is a positive step to address public concerns about the NSA's surveillance programs, but action from Congress is also needed, says Kevin Bankston, policy director with the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute.
"The entire concept of separation of powers that is the basis for our form of government rests on the recognition that internal checks and self-regulation are not enough to avoid abuses of power," Bankston says.
Changes made by courts and Congress to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the NSA are needed to ensure surveillance programs respect civil liberties, says Michelle Richardson, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.
"The higher-ups are committed to these programs, and FISA judges have endorsed them," Richardson says. "It will take legislative changes and court rulings to make real substantive improvements to the law."
During a speech on Jan. 17, Obama called for legislation authorizing privacy advocates from outside the government to argue civil liberties concerns before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, also known as the FISA Court, which reviews data requests for intelligence agencies. Obama also said during his remarks that the government's in-house bulk storage of American phone records will end, and tasked Attorney General Eric Holder and intelligence leaders with devising a plan to enact this pivot before March 28.
Patriot Act author Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy , D-Vt., introduced the USA Freedom Act to end the bulk data collection by the NSA. The measure has bipartisan support, with 124 co-sponsors in the House and 19 in the Senate.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., has proposed a separate bill that would overhaul and create a privacy advocate that could argue before the surveillance court, a bill he introduced with Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, in October. While Van Hollen says he has seen a wide range of proposals for surveillance reform in Congress since last summer, he adds, "It's too early to tell exactly what changes will be made."