The FISA Amendments: Behind the Scenes

I’ve been poring over the trove of documents the Electronic Frontier Foundation has obtained detailing the long process by which the FISA Amendments Act—which substantially expanded executive power to conduct sweeping surveillance with little oversight—was hammered out between Hill staffers and lawyers at the Department of Justice and intelligence agencies. The really interesting stuff, of course, is mostly redacted, and I’m only partway though the stacks, but there are a few interesting tidbits so far.

As Wired has already reported, one e-mail shows Bush officials feared that if the attorney general was given too much discretion over retroactive immunity for telecoms that aided in warrantless wiretapping, the next administration might refuse to provide it.

A couple other things stuck out for me. First, while it’s possible they’ve been released before and simply not crossed my desk, there are a series of position papers — so rife with  underlining that they look like some breathless magazine subscription pitch — circulated to Congress explaining the Bush administration’s opposition to various proposed amendments to the FAA. Among these was a proposal by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) that would have barred “bulk collection” of international traffic and required that the broad new intelligence authorizations specify (though not necessarily by name) individual targets. The idea here was that if there were particular suspected terrorists (for instance) being monitored overseas, it would be fine to keep monitoring their communications if they began talking with Americans without pausing to get a full-blown warrant — but you didn’t want to give NSA carte blanche to just indiscriminately sweep in traffic between the U.S. and anyone abroad. The position paper included in these documents is more explicit than the others that I’ve seen about the motive for objecting to the bulk collection amendment. Which was, predictably, that they wanted to do bulk collection:

  • It also would prevent the intelligence community from conducting the types of intelligence collection necessary to track terrorits and develop new targets.
  • For example, this amendment could prevent the intelligence community from targeting a particular group of buildings or a geographic area abroad to collect foreign intelligence prior to operations by our armed forces.

So to be clear: Contra the rhetoric we heard at the time, the concern was not simply that NSA would be able to keep monitoring a suspected terrorist when he began calling up Americans. It was to permit the “targeting” of entire regions, scooping all communications between the United States and the chosen area.

One other exchange at least raises an eyebrow.  If you were following the battle in Congress at the time, you may recall that there was a period when the stopgap Protect America Act had expired — though surveillance authorized pursuant to the law could continue for many months — and before Congress approved the FAA. A week into that period, on February 22, 2008, the attorney general and director of national intelligence sent a letter warning Congress that they were now losing intelligence because providers were refusing to comply with new requests under existing PAA authorizations. A day later, they had to roll that back, and some of the correspondence from the EFF FOIA record makes clear that there was an issue with a single recalcitrant provider who decided to go along shortly after the letter was sent.

But there’s another wrinkle. A week prior to this, just before the PAA was set to expire, Jeremy Bash, the chief counsel for the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, sent an email to “Ken and Ben,” about a recent press conference call. It’s clear from context that he’s writing to Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Wainstein and General Counsel for the Director of National Intelligence Ben Powell about this press call, where both men fairly clearly suggest that telecoms are balking for fear that they’ll no longer be immune from liability for participation in PAA surveillance after the statute lapses. Bash wants to confirm whether they really said that “private sector entities have refused to comply with PAA certifications because they were concerned that the law was temporary.” In particular, he wants to know whether this is actually true, because “the briefs I read provided a very different rationale.”  In other words, Bash — who we know was cleared for the most sensitive information about NSA surveillance — was aware of some service providers being reluctant to comply with “new taskings” under the law, but not because of the looming expiration of the statute. One of his correspondents — whether Wainstein or Powell is unclear — shoots back denying having said any such thing (read the transcript yourself) and concluding with a terse:

Not addressing what is in fact the situation on both those issues (compliance and threat to halt) on this email.

In other words, the actual compliance issues they were encountering would have to be discussed over a more secure channel. If the issue wasn’t the expiration, though, what would the issue have been? The obvious alternative possibility is that NSA (or another agency) was attempting to get them to carry out surveillance that they thought might fall outside the scope of either the PAA or a particular authorization. Given how sweeping these were, that should certainly give us pause. It should also raise some questions as to whether, even before that one holdout fell into compliance, the warning letter from the AG and the DNI was misleading. Was there really ever a “gap” resulting from the statute’s sunset, or was it a matter of telecoms balking at an attempt by the intelligence community to stretch the bounds of their legal authority? The latter would certainly fit a pattern we saw again and again under the Bush administration: break the law, inducing a legal crisis, then threaten bloody mayhem if the unlawful program is forced to abruptly halt — at which point a nervous Congress grants its blessing.