John Inglis appears at University of Pennsylvania to argue legality of bulk surveillance and indicates stance on Feinstein bill
The deputy director of the National Security Agency on Friday sounded skeptical about permitting the FBI, DEA or other law enforcement agencies to directly search through the NSA's vast data troves, as a new bill would appear to permit.
A bill recently approved by the Senate intelligence committee on a 13-4 vote blesses the ability of law enforcement agencies to directly conduct "queries of data" from NSA databases of foreign-derived communications content "for law enforcement purposes".
John C Inglis, the top civilian at the NSA, said he was unfamiliar with the proposed legislation during a late-afternoon dialogue at the University of Pennsylvania Law School – a forum that allowed for occasionally blunt questioning of a senior NSA official.
"The FBI is a customer of mine," Inglis said in response to a question from the Guardian. "But I don't provide domestic intelligence for the FBI, I essentially provide foreign intelligence inside, something that might cross the seam, and give them a tip as to how to spend their precious domestic resources to prosecute terrorism, counterintelligence, things of that sort.
"So I can imagine situations where I, on their behalf, am querying my databases, foreign intelligence databases, to inform those instruments of power. I'm not yet in a place where I understand how I might give them direct access to those databases for their authorities. That I think would be problematic."
Inglis said he would have to see the legislation to get a better understanding of how it would work.
But in the six months since the Guardian, the Washington Post and others began publishing material derived from provided by a former NSA contractor, Edward Snowden, Inglis' statement is the clearest yet that the FBI and other law enforcement agencies cannot search through the NSA's data troves directly. Recently declassified and heavily redacted opinions of the special US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, known as the Fisa court, have not made clear to what extent law enforcement agencies have unmediated access to NSA databases.
The Senate intelligence committee's bill, called the Fisa Improvements Act, is one of several legislative answers to the unfolding controversy over the breadth of the NSA's powers. It competes directly with a bill emerging from the Senate judiciary committee that would end bulk data collection from Americans without individual warrants.
In recent weeks the NSA has sought to build support for its surveillance powers. It was to that purpose that Inglis addressed the University of Pennsylvania Law School for two hours on Friday.
Inglis argued that NSA bulk surveillance was manifestly legal, well supervised by Congress and the Fisa court, and necessary to protect the US from terrorist attacks. While his remarks substantively echoed those he and colleagues have given to congressional committees, his appearance outside NSA headquarters at Fort Meade or Capitol Hill was a rare recent instance of the NSA taking its case directly to the public.
Whatever disagreements exist about the proper scope of NSA's surveillance, Inglis argued, "we all have a common objective, which is to figure this out, to sort this out." Pressed by University of Pennsylvania professor Claire Finkelstein, Inglis strongly decried Snowden's leaks as illegal and morally illegitimate, but conceded that they have provided NSA with an opportunity "not only to restore trust in a system or a system of practices, but to go forward such that we strengthen the bonds of trust" with the public.
Not every attendee was convinced. Jack Regenbogen, a representative of the Penn Law chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, told Inglis the scope of NSA surveillance was "truly terrifying", and on behalf of the organization demanded it stop. Inglis sought at length to refute Regenbogen's factual and interpretive presentation of NSA activities but thanked him for making them, saying "They influence me."
"I mean this seriously," Inglis said. "If you're looking for a job in another year and a half, come influence us from the inside."
After the talk, the second-year law student said he was "flattered" by Inglis' offer, but expressed reservations about the deputy NSA director's defense of bulk surveillance.
"Given the NSA's past history of misleading the public, it's hard to take his word at value," Regenbogen said. "I appreciate him putting himself out there."
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013