More on Bush’s Surveillance Flip-Flop

Based on the DOJ briefing regarding the NSA surveillance about-face, it appears that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) is not approving surveillance on a program-wide basis.  Instead, it is issuing individualized surveillance orders against particularized targets.  It remains unclear, though, how exactly the FISA orders have changed to permit more “speed and agility” and, because so much is taking place within the dark, all suggestions are pure, unadulterated guess-work.

One compelling theory is Orin Kerr’s:  namely, that the FISA court is issuing anticipatory warrants (warrants based on a finding that there is probable cause to search when a future triggering condition appears.)  As Kerr notes, that’s consistent the one bit of evidence we can glean:  that the FISA court is limiting the approval orders to a 90 day period, rather than the full statutory one year period permitted under FISA.  Shorter review is consistent with ensuring that the triggering condition for the search and the probable cause requirement mesh.  It also helps explain the timing, since the Supreme Court approved anticipatory warrants in United States v. Grubbs last term.  (For more on Grubbs, read Professor David Moran’s article on last term’s Fourth Amendment cases, The End of the Exclusionary Rule, Among Other Things, in the latest Cato Supreme Court Review.)

Kerr’s theory, however, doesn’t explain one part of the puzzle:  multiple sources’ statements to the Washington Post that the orders touch on ”programmatic” issues.  What might this mean, if FISC is approving orders on a case-by-case, rather than program-level, basis?

One possibility is that DOJ has adopted a streamlined internal approval process for emergency FISA applications within the executive branch, and that FISC has approved it.  FISA imposes some internal pre-approval requirements for emergency applications–including review by the AG and a cabinet level official with foreign affairs responsibility.  In February testimony last year, Gonzales complained at length that this statutory approval process had become overly cumbersome:

To be sure, FISA allows the government to begin electronic surveillance without a court order for up to 72 hours in emergency situations or circumstances. 

But before that emergency provision can be used, the attorney general must make a determination that all of the requirements of the FISA statute are met in advance. 

This requirement can be cumbersome and burdensome.  Intelligence officials at NSA first have to assess that they have identified a legitimate target. After that, lawyers at NSA have to review the request to make sure it meets all the requirements of the statute. And then lawyers at the Justice Department must also review the request and reach the same judgment or insist on additional information before processing the emergency application.  Finally I, as attorney general, must review the request and make the determination that all of the requirements of FISA are met.  

But even this is not the end of the story. 

Each emergency authorization must be followed by a detailed formal application to the FISA courts within three days. The government must prepare legal documents laying out all of the relevant facts and law and obtain the approval of a Cabinet-level officer as well as a certification from a senior official with mass security responsibility, such as the director of the FBI. 

Finally, a judge must review, consider and approve the application.  All of these steps take time. Al Qaida, however, does not wait.  … Just as we can’t demand that our soldiers bring lawyers onto the battlefield, let alone get the permission of the attorney general or a court before taking action, we can’t afford to impose layers of lawyers on top of career intelligence officers who are striving valiantly to provide a first line of defense by tracking secretive Al Qaida operatives in real time.  

In the briefing on the new FISA process, however, the administration noted that one change that made compliance with FISA possible was a change in executive branch “infrastructure”:

[O]ne thing that did change was – authorization earlier this year, last year, the National Security Division, which is a new agency in the Department of Justice, which will – be coordinating with the FISA Court on all kinds of matters including this one. So we’re now equipped in a way we weren’t before to handle this work.

One way to read this is that the new FISC order finds that new streamlined executive branch procedures for internal review of emergency applications accords with FISA.  Its hard, unfortunately, to guess exactly what such procedures might be, but it almost certainly includes eliminating duplicative layers of legal oversight within the executive.