MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The National Security Agency is the country's largest intelligence agency. And among its most secretive, NSA headquarters is a huge black cube of a building surrounded by endless parking lots and tight security out in Fort Meade, Md., just outside Washington. The agency's work touches everything from Russian hacking to cyberwarfare to the privacy of U.S. citizens. Yet, the NSA rarely speaks. Well, NPR's Greg Myre paid a visit there to meet someone who would speak and who wants to make the agency more open.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: The NSA's Robert Storch is a talkative guy at a place that specializes in eavesdropping.
ROBERT STORCH: It's a big federal government agency. It spends a lot of taxpayer dollars. And so as a general matter, I think the public has a right to know how its funds are being spent.
MYRE: Storch became the NSA inspector general in January. As an independent watchdog at the sprawling intelligence agency, he really likes to talk about whistleblowers.
STORCH: I felt very strongly that this was a key function for an inspector general's office to have a robust whistleblower program.
MYRE: His office received 516 calls on its hotline during a recent six-month period. They run the gamut from complaints about contractors who allegedly charge too much to whistleblowers who claim they suffered reprisals. Storch, a former prosecutor, can discuss them only in general terms. Still, he's playing a visible role at an agency that often seems invisible with its spying missions and classified budgets.
JAMES BAMFORD: The NSA has always been the most secret agency in the United States, far more secret than the CIA.
MYRE: Author James Bamford has written four books on the NSA and still finds it challenging to get information like how many people work there.
BAMFORD: Somewhere between 25,000 and 50,000 - somewhere around there.
MYRE: The NSA's broad mandate includes electronic surveillance on the likes of Russia and China, preparations for cyberwarfare and guarding against foreign tampering of the U.S. election system. Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, a whistleblower to some and a traitor to others, revealed many agency secrets in 2013. Since then, the NSA has faced much greater criticism in the debate over privacy in the digital age. Again, James Bamford.
BAMFORD: The problem I've always found with the NSA is there are laws out there that say they shouldn't do this and they shouldn't do that. But in the past, they have gotten around them, and that's why we've ended up with these eavesdropping scandals.
MYRE: There are hints of a new approach. The NSA director used to hire and fire the inspector general. Under new rules, Storch is the first nominated by a president and confirmed by the Senate. In July, Storch released an unclassified version of his semi-annual report, something never done before. And there's the office logo. When Storch arrived, the Office of the Inspector General, or OIG, had the same one as the NSA with an eagle at its center.
STORCH: And I thought, wait a minute. We're an independent OIG.
MYRE: He put together a graphics team.
STORCH: Our logo now has a big owl, which looks like it's doing oversight, I think.
MYRE: His recent report does address weighty issues, like the government's use of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA.
STORCH: We found that there were several deficiencies that had the potential to impact protection of U.S. person privacy.
MYRE: He also raised concerns about Internet searches that could jeopardize civil liberties. However, the details are only in the classified version of his report. Shortly after taking the job, Storch invited watchdog groups to the NSA. One attendee, Nick Schwellenbach of the Project on Government Oversight, says this of Storch.
NICK SCHWELLENBACH: I think he's a breath of fresh air over there.
MYRE: But he predicts it will be hard to change the culture around whistleblowing.
SCHWELLENBACH: The fear of retaliation is real. I mean, a lot of people don't want to even go through all that, even if they could ultimately prevail, you know, many months or even, in some cases, years down the road. It's just - it's a headache. It's a nightmare.
MYRE: Rob Storch is undeterred.
STORCH: I have a job to do independent oversight - completely independent.
MYRE: And he's reminded of that every time he looks at the owl on his wall. Greg Myre, NPR News, Fort Meade, Md.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOUR TET'S "AS SERIOUS AS YOUR LIFE")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.