Ratifying NSA Spying, a Court Calls FISA ‘Courts’ Into Question

Two weeks ago, when D.C. District judge Richard Leon ruled that mass government surveillance of Americans’ telephone calling was likely unconstitutional, there was some well-poisoning about his opinion being “passionate.” The implication, of course, was that he was not being suitably judicial. The same could be said of this week’s ruling by Judge Pauley of the U.S. District Court in New York. When the first sentence intones: “The September 11th terrorist attacks revealed, in the starkest terms, just how dangerous and interconnected the world is,” and when the first citation is a “See generally” to the 9/11 Commission report, these are not signs that you’re about to get dispassionate application of law to facts.

Judge Pauley’s use of the 9/11 Commission report to argue that NSA data collection could have foiled the 9/11 plot is belied by the report’s clear statement with respect to Khalid Al-Mihdhar: “No one was looking for him.” (page 269) In our paper, “Effective Counterterrorism and the Limited Role of Predictive Data Mining,” Jeff Jonas and I detailed ways many of the 9/11 terrorists could have been found had anyone been looking. The argument that NSA spying would have prevented 9/11 is not a strong one.

But passions pitted against one another is just one of the symmetries between the two rulings. Judge Leon distinguished Smith v. Maryland. He believes that the Supreme Court case allowing the use of phone call information to convict a suspected burglar and obscene phone caller does not ratify the collection of phone calling information about every innocent American. Judge Pauley treated Smith v. Maryland as controlling. If one burglar in Baltimore doesn’t have a Fourth Amendment interest in his phone calling data, 200 million Americans don’t either. We have appeals to sort these things out, and Judge Pauley’s ruling makes it more likely that such an appeal will reach the Supreme Court, which is good.

The interesting thing in Judge Pauley’s ruling is ammunition he offers to critics of the panels of judges created by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. People often refer to them as the “Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court” or “FISC.”

While the FISC is composed of Article III judges, it operates unlike any other Article III court. Proceedings in Article III courts are public. And the public enjoys a “general right to inspect and copy public records and documents, including judicial records and documents.” (citation omitted) “The presumption of access is based on the need for federal courts, although independent—indeed, particularly because they are independent—to have a measure of accountability and for the public to have confidence in the administration of justice.” (citation omitted)

Later, he writes:

The two declassified FISC decisions authorizing bulk metadata collection do not discuss several of the ACLU’s arugments. They were issued on the basis of ex parte applications by the government without the benefit of the excellent briefing submitted to this Court by the Governent, the ACLU, and amici curiae. There is no question that judges operate best in an adversarial system. “The value of a judicial proceeding … is substantially diluted where the process is ex parte, because the Court does not have available the fundamental instrument for judicial judgment: an adversary proceeding in which both parties may participate.” (citation omitted) … As FISA has evolved and Congress has loosened its individual suspicion requirements, the FISC has been tasked with delineating the limits of the Government’s surveillance power, issuing secret decision [sic] without the benefit of adversarial process. Its ex parte procedures are necessary to retain secrecy but are not ideal for interpreting statutes.

This echoes an argument Randy Barnett and I offered in our brief to the Supreme Court about NSA spying. These so-called ‘courts’ that administer NSA spy programs lack many of the hallmarks of a true court, and their use to dispose of rights that protect our privacy is a violation of due process.

There will be much more to come in the judicial path of the NSA spying debate. The legitimacy of FISA panels should be a part of that discussion.