NSA privacy director defends agency's surveillance

The agency's first privacy director answers public questions on Tumblr

The U.S. National Security Agency's surveillance programs are legal and under close scrutiny by other parts of the government, the agency's internal privacy watchdog said Monday in an online Q&A.

NSA surveillance and data collection programs conform to the U.S. Constitution, Rebecca Richards, the agency's first civil liberties and privacy director, wrote during an hour-plus Q&A on Tumblr.

The NSA operates under rules that "ensure that its activities fall within the parameters of the Constitution," Richards wrote when asked why she believes the surveillance programs are constitutional.

"The oversight regime governing NSA is extensive, spanning all three branches of government," she added. "The fact that NSA created my job highlights the value and importance NSA leadership places on privacy and civil liberties protections."

Critics have said some NSA surveillance programs violate the Constitution's Fourth Amendment, prohibiting unreasonable searches and seizures by the government.

One Q&A participant asked if U.S. residents' fears of being "discreetly spied on" are merited.

The fears are not merited, Richards wrote. "NSA is a foreign intelligence agency," she wrote. "Our mission is to collect critical intelligence on foreign powers or their agents necessary to defend the country."

U.S. law requires that the NSA, when targeting a U.S. citizen for foreign intelligence purposes, to obtain a court order "based on a finding of probable cause to believe the intended target is a foreign power or an agent of a foreign power," she added.

One participant paraphrased Benjamin Franklin to Richards: "He who gives up freedom for safety deserves neither." The questioner then asked whether the NSA's "erosion of the Fourth Amendment is fair and righteous, in regard to the principles on which the United States were founded?"

Richards again defended the NSA: "Intelligence agencies, just like other government agencies, have a responsibility to protect privacy and civil liberties," she wrote. "In the course of our operations, we take great care to protect and safeguard personal privacy."

NSA employees take an oath to defend the Constitution, she added. "Protection of civil liberties and privacy must coexist with national security," she wrote.

The slow-moving Q&A, billed by Tumblr as the first online Q&A by the U.S. intelligence community, got off to a rocky start, with the first questioner asking whether the NSA privacy director is a real position, or "is this all a joke?"

The second question was: "I'm submitting this anonymous question through TOR. Can you tell who this is?:

Richards responded: "Mom -- is that you? In all seriousness, no. Anonymous means anonymous."

Among about a dozen questions Richards answered was one about pop star Taylor Swift and a question about Richards' typical day. Participants were required to submit questions ahead of time through Tumblr.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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