A Response to Intel Abuses at Last?

As I explain in yesterday’s BloggingHeads dialogue with Eli Lake, I’m chary of relying too much on legislative “sunset” provisions to check abuse of power, especially in the shadowy world of intelligence. (For the fleshed-out version of the argument, see Chris Mooney’s 2004 piece in Legal Affairs.) After all, in January, the Office of the Inspector General had released an absolutely damning report showing that for years, FBI agents systematically manipulated their incredibly broad National Security Letter authorities to get information about Americans telephone usage without following any legitimate legal process at all. To cover those abuses, officials compounded their crimes by lying to federal courts and refusing to use an auditable computer system for their information requests.  The report was released amid debate over what reforms should be included in the reauthorization of several controversial Patriot Act provisions, with proposed changes to the NSL statutes front and center—not least because several courts had found constitutional problems with the gag orders accompanying NSLs. Yet just a month later, Congress consented to an extension of those Patriot provisions without implementing any of the various rather mild changes that had won approval in the House or Senate Judiciary Committees. If a sunset-inspired review didn’t yield any real consequences then, I thought, what would it take?

Today, however, I see a there are glimmers of interest in something more closely resembling serious oversight. In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, sent last month but released yesterday, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-VT) urges DOJ to implement many of the reforms in the SJC’s bill voluntarily—above all procedures to guarantee a detailed record of the grounds on which various types of information sought, and to govern the retention, use, and distribution of information obtained. Leahy also signals his intent to ask department watchdogs to conduct audits of the use of Patriot authorities, as the Senate’s bill had stipulated. These are all, needless to say, good ideas—provided we don’t accept voluntary and mutable internal guidelines as a substitute for statutory limits with teeth.

Meanwhile, Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) is holding Wednesday morning hearings on the abuses detailed in the Inspector General’s report. FBI General Counsel Valerie Caproni and IG Glenn Fine are slated to testify. (There are links to their prepared testimony already, though the documents themselves aren’t there yet as I write.) Extrapolating from past performances, I predict Caproni will allow that the abuses described were Very Serious Indeed (though, really, perhaps not quite as serious as all that…) but all cleaned up now. Nobody should be satisfied with this, and if Fine doesn’t broach the subject himself, somebody really ought to ask Caproni about some minimization procedures for the 25,000–50,000 National Security Letters the department issues annually. As Fine noted in recent testimony, the Bureau has been promising this for years now:

In August 2007, the NSL Working Group sent the Attorney General its report and proposed minimization procedures. However, we had several concerns with the findings and recommendations of the Working Group’s report, which we discussed in our March 2008 NSL report. In particular, we disagreed with the Working Group about the sufficiency of existing privacy safeguards and measures for minimizing the retention of NSL-derived information. We disagreed because the controls the Working Group cited as providing safeguards predated our NSL reviews, yet we found serious abuses of the NSL authorities.

As a result, the Acting Privacy Officer decided to reconsider the recommendations and withdrew them. The Working Group has subsequently developed new recommendations for NSL minimization procedures, which are still being considered within the Department and have not yet been issued. We believe that the Department should promptly consider the Working Group’s proposal and issue final minimization procedures for NSLs that address the collection of information through NSLs, how the FBI can upload NSL information in FBI databases, the dissemination of NSL information, the appropriate tagging and tracking of NSL derived information in FBI databases and files, and the time period for retention of NSL obtained information. At this point, more than 2 years have elapsed since after our first report was issued, and final guidance is needed and overdue.

Way, way overdue—much like some kind of serious congressional response to the Bureau’s NSL Calvinball.