Pots, Kettles, and Sen. Brownback

Via Yglesias, Sam Brownback is outraged that the Chinese government would spy on foreigners on its soil without a warrant. When it was pointed out to him that the United States government is now authorized to conduct warrantless spying in the United States, he had this to say:

We don’t put the hardware and software on hotels. If there is a targeted individual that seems to be a likely prospect of terrorists, they must go through the FISA court and ask for a court to determine that there is probable cause to be able to listen in on that information.

This is a blanket requirement of a hotel to operate a license in China. It is non-specific to anybody. It can be used on journalists. It can be used on athletes – or, excuse me, they’re at the Olympic village – but on their families. It can be used on democracy advocates, human rights advocates, none of which is prohibited. It is real time.

I think there is a huge difference between these two that are taking place.

Well, except there isn’t. All that’s required under the FISA Amendments that the Senate passed a couple of weeks ago is that the government “certify” that the “target” of the surveillance is located overseas. There’s no requirement that the government identify specific targets, and there’s no “probable cause” requirement at all — not even the permissive “agent of a foreign power” standard that had previously governed FISA intercepts.

This means that if the Olympics were held in the United States, the US government could “target,” say, a foreign newspaper such as the Guardian. And as a means of “targeting” the Guardian, it could tap the hotel rooms of all Guardian reporters in the United States.

Now, under the FISA Amendments Act, the government would have to submit a “certification” to a judge describing the eavesdropping plan. And the judge is required to verify that the interceptions are not “targeting” persons located within the United States. But, the government could argue with some plausibility, the “target” of the acquisition is the Guardian, which is located overseas, not the particular reporters who are in the United States. It would be a close legal question. And anyway, the government “is not required to identify the specific facilities, places, premises, or property” in the certification it submits to the judge, so the judge might not even realize that the government is bugging every reporter.

Worst of all, even if the judge rejected the “certification,” the government would have 30 days to continue eavesdropping before it was required to comply with a judge’s order. Since the Olympics are only about 3 weeks long, that means the government could intercept every single call from every single foreign reporter throughout the entire Olympics regardless of what the judge nominally overseeing the eavesdropping said.

Finally, lest we think the United States government would never do such a thing, the FBI repeatedly spied on “democracy advocates” and “human rights advocates” during the Cold War. For example, between 1954 and 1973, the FBI’s New York office alone conducted 433 break-ins of organizations J. Edgar Hoover didn’t like. Targets included the National Lawyers Guild, the Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights, the American Youth Congress, Vietnam Veterans against the War, Students for a Democratic Society, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee, the League of American Writers, the National Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam, the Jewish Cultural Society, the Civil Rights Congress, and dozens of other organizations. And we only know about those break-ins because the head of the FBI field office failed to destroy his records as he had been ordered to do by Hoover. The records of other field offices were destroyed, but there is every reason to think that a similar number of organizations were spied upon in other cities.

Now, I have no evidence that anything of the sort is going on today. But this is precisely why there needs to be judicial supervision of eavesdropping efforts. Because we know from history that without external oversight, power will inevitably be abused. And unfortunately, Sen. Brownback voted for legislation that significantly reduced judicial oversight of wiretapping activities. Brownback is absolutely right to say that domestic eavesdropping shouldn’t occur until the government has demonstrated probable cause to a judge. Too bad he didn’t vote that way.