The NSA Fig Leaf Act of 2013

Just in time for Halloween, the Senate Intelligence Committee has produced fig-leaf legislation that entrenches indiscriminate collection of Americans’ phone and Internet records, but dressed it up in the costume of a surveillance reform bill designed to ban such collection. The “FISA Improvements Act” does contain some mild but generally positive transparency measures—somewhat ironically, given that the bill itself was marked up in secret. But the main provision deals with the NSA’s controversial bulk phone records program. According to the extraordinarily misleading press release, the law:

Prohibits the collection of bulk communication records under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act except under specific procedures and restrictions set forth in the bill

This is almost precisely backwards. In fact, the bill for the first time explicitly authorizes, and therefore entrenches in statute, the bulk collection of communications records, subject to more or less the same rules already imposed by the FISA Court. It endorses, rather than prohibits, what the NSA is already doing. Moreover, it imposes those restrictions only with respect to bulk collection of communications records—which is dangerous, because it signals to the FISA Court that Congress implicitly endorses the use of Section 215 to collect other records in bulk without comparable restrictions. (The key phrase “acquisition in bulk,” incidentally, does not appear to be given any concrete definition.) 

Perhaps most troubling, the bill contains a section stipulating that bulk orders for communcations records may not acquire the contents of any communications. That sounds good, right? The problem is, under canons of judicial interpretation, a narrow and explicit prohibition on getting content under bulk orders for communications records could easily be read to imply that content can be acquired via non-bulk orders, or even via bulk orders for other types of records. At present, it is not clear whether the statute allows for the acquisition of contents under 215, but there are strong arguments it does not—though, of course, I’d argue the Constitution would forbid this even if the statute didn’t. Under this law, though, a clever Justice Department lawyer could plausibly argue that a prohibition on content collection under one very specific type of 215 order would be senseless and redundant unless Congress intended for content to be accessible under 215 orders generally—and Courts generally have to interpret the law in a way that avoids making any provision redundant.

This is not at all a hypothetical concern. In 2006, Congress amended Section 215 to add special “protections” for educational and medical records. What Congress didn’t know is that, because those records are already protected under other federal laws, and 215 contained no language explicitly overriding those statutes, the Justice Department had determined that 215 simply could not be used to access those types of records—an interpretation that was reversed after the “protections” were added. Congress, in other words, inadvertently expanded the scope of 215 while trying to limit it—a fact that was discovered only later, when a report by the Inspector General revealed the unintended consequences of the amendment.

This bill bears out the prediction Sen. Ron Wyden made in his keynote speech at our recent NSA conference:

[W]e know in the months ahead we will be up against a “business-as-usual brigade” – made up of influential members of the government’s intelligence leadership, their allies in thinktanks and academia, retired government officials, and sympathetic legislators. Their game plan? Try mightily to fog up the surveillance debate and convince the Congress and the public that the real problem here is not overly intrusive, constitutionally flawed domestic surveillance, but sensationalistic media reporting. Their end game is ensuring that any surveillance reforms are only skin-deep.

The business-as-usual brigade have resigned themselves to the inevitability of some kind of NSA reform—but they’re clearly hoping some cosmetic changes, falsely billed as a “prohibition” on bulk collection, along with a few mild transparency tweaks, will preempt any more substantive reform. It’s an ingenious costume, but most assuredly more trick than treat.