State Secrets, Courts, and NSA’s Illegal Wiretapping

As Tim Lynch notes, Judge Vaughn Walker has ruled in favor of the now-defunct Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation—unique among the many litigants who have tried to challenge the Bush-era program of warrantless wiretapping by the National Security Agency because they actually had evidence, in the form of a document accidentally delivered to foundation lawyers by the government itself, that their personnel had been targeted for eavesdropping.

Other efforts to get a court to review the program’s legality had been caught in a kind of catch-22: Plaintiffs who merely feared that their calls might be subject to NSA filtering and interception lacked standing to sue, because they couldn’t show a specific, concrete injury resulting from the program.

But, of course, information about exactly who has been wiretapped is a closely guarded state secret. So closely guarded, in fact, that the Justice Department was able to force the return of the document that exposed the wiretapping of Al-Haramain, and then get it barred from the court’s consideration as a “secret” even after it had been disclosed. (Contrast, incidentally, the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on individual privacy rights, which often denies any legitimate expectation of privacy in information once revealed to a third party.) Al-Haramain finally prevailed because they were ultimately able to assemble evidence from the public record showing they’d been wiretapped, and the government declined to produce anything resembling a warrant for that surveillance.

If you read over the actual opinion, however it may seem a little anticlimactic—as though something is missing. The ruling concludes that there’s prima facie evidence that Al-Haramain and their lawyers were wiretapped, that the government has failed to produce a warrant, and that this violates the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. But of course, there was never any question about that. Not even the most strident apologists for the NSA program denied that it contravened FISA; rather, they offered a series of rationalizations for why the president was entitled to disregard a federal statute.

There was the John Yoo argument that the president essentially becomes omnipotent during wartime, and that if we can shoot Taliban on a foreign battlefield, surely we can wiretap Americans at home if they seem vaguely Taliban-ish. Even under Bush, the Office of Legal Counsel soon backed away from such… creative… lines of argument. Instead, they relied on the post-9/11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) against al-Qaeda, claiming it had implicitly created a loophole in the FISA law. It was David Kris, now head of DOJ’s National Security Division, who most decisively blew that one out of the water, concluding that it was “essentially impossible” to sustain the government’s reading of the AUMF.

Yet you’ll note that none of these issues arise in Walker’s opinion, because the DOJ, in effect, refused to play. They resisted the court at every step, insisting that a program discussed at length on the front pages of newspapers for years now was so very secret that no aspect of it could be discussed even in a closed setting. They continued to insist on this in the face of repeated court rulings to the contrary. So while Al-Haramain has prevailed, there’s no ruling on the validity of any of those arguments. That’s why I think Marcy Wheeler is probably correct when she predicts that the government will simply take its lumps and pay damages rather than risk an appeal. For one, while Obama administration has been happy to invoke state secrecy as vigorously as its predecessor, it would obviously be somewhat embarrassing for Obama’s DOJ to parrot Bush’s substantive claims of near-limitless executive power. Perhaps more to the point, though, some of those legal arguments may still be operative in secret OLC memos. The FISA Amendments Act aimed to put the unlawful Bush program under court supervision, and even reasserted FISA’s language establishing it as the “exclusive means” for electronic surveillance, which would seem to drive a final stake in the heart of any argument based on the AUMF. But we ultimately don’t know what legal rationales they still consider operative, and it would surely be awkward to have an appellate court knock the legs out from under some of these secret memoranda.

None of this is to deny that the ruling is a big deal—if nothing else because it suggests that the government does not enjoy total carte blanche to shield lawbreaking from review with broad, bald assertions of privilege. But I also know that civil libertarians had hoped that the courts might be the only path to a more full accounting of—and accountability for—the domestic spying program. If the upshot of this is simply that the government must pay a few tens, or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages, it’s hard not to see the victory as something of a disappointment.