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    It Only Took the NSA 61 Years to Hire Its First Privacy and Civil Liberties Officer

    Written by

    Brian Merchant

    Senior Editor

    Image: NSA.gov

    The NSA was formally established by president Harry Truman in 1952. In 2014, the nation's most secretive spy agency has named its first-ever employee charged with making sure its operations are not violating Americans' civil liberties. It only took six decades.

    Sure, that there was no massive scandal confronting the agency 61 years ago. There might have been, had the public known that its 'MINARET' program was conducting illegal surveillance of Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders, and helping the FBI to harass and discredit them. The NSA probably could have used a good civil liberties officer then.

    But no, it only took the NSA two-thirds of a year, or nearly 8 months after its biggest scandal ever, to finally make this small gesture towards protecting the citizenry's privacy. That should give you an idea of how seriously and swiftly the administration is moving to address NSA overreach.

    The job was first announced in August, and was described as a "completely new role." In a statement announcing the hire, the NSA said that "privacy expert Rebecca Richards will serve as the National Security Agency's new Civil Liberties and Privacy Officer." Her last gig was the Senior Director for Privacy Compliance at the Department of Homeland Security. 

    Yes, the same Department of Homeland Security that civil liberties advocates criticized in 2012 for its intrusive habit of monitoring Americans' social media use. You may recall that Electronic Privacy Information Center used a FOIA to force the agency to release the list of keywords it was snooping for, allegedly to determine whether thousands of Americans were in fact terrorists. 

    So, the same privacy compliance director who allowed the DHS's little gem of a program to continue on until outed is now charged with making sure the NSA is respecting our civil liberties. Paul Rosenzweig, the former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy in the Department of Homeland Security notes that "civil libertarians are skeptical." Uh, yeah. 

    "NSA continues to take positive actions to ensure we protect both civil liberties and national security," General Keith Alexander, head of the NSA, said of the appointment.

    "After a rigorous and lengthy interview process, I've selected an expert whose background will bring additional perspectives and insight to our foreign intelligence activities. I'm confident that Ms. Richards is the right person with the right experience for the job. She will report directly to me and will advise me and our senior leadership team to ensure privacy and civil liberties considerations remain a vital driver for all our strategic decisions," Alexander said.

    Some sixty years too late, we'll see about that.