Tag: Fourth Amendment

Thursday Links

  • “Consistent bets for higher oil prices in futures markets have not been particularly lucrative.”
  • “The vast, swaying bulk of America’s military has absolutely nothing to do with effectively combating terrorism—including the large land armies that we deploy to Muslim countries in efforts to destroy and then reconstitute their states.”
  • “ ‘Poking and prodding’ is what good government does to perfect strangers. And that’s what the Obama administration has been doing, with unusual zeal, for the past 2 1/2 years.”
  • The Cato 2011 State Legislative Guide is designed to help state policymakers free their constituents from the burden of overextended government and addresses unfunded pension liabilities, ballooning Medicaid enrollment, massive budget gaps, failing education systems, and other important issues.
  • The Kentucky v. King decision has delivered a blow to Fourth Amendment protections:


    Read more here.

The ‘Privacy Bill of Rights’ Is in the Bill of Rights

Every lover of liberty and the Constitution should be offended by the moniker “Privacy Bill of Rights” appended to regulatory legislation Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and John McCain (R-AZ) introduced yesterday. As C|Net’s Declan McCullagh points out, the legislation exempts the federal government and law enforcement:

[T]he measure applies only to companies and some nonprofit groups, not to the federal, state, and local police agencies that have adopted high-tech surveillance technologies including cell phone tracking, GPS bugs, and requests to Internet companies for users’ personal information–in many cases without obtaining a search warrant from a judge.

The real “Privacy Bill of Rights” is in the Bill of Rights. It’s the Fourth Amendment.

It takes a lot of gall to put the moniker “Privacy Bill of Rights” on legislation that reduces liberty in the information economy while the Fourth Amendment remains tattered and threadbare. Nevermind “reasonable expectations”: the people’s right to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures is worn down to the nub.

Senators Kerry and McCain should look into the privacy consequences of the Internal Revenue Code. How is privacy going to fare under Obamacare? How is the Department of Homeland Security doing with its privacy efforts? What is an “administrative search”?

McCullagh was good enough to quote yours truly on the new effort from Sens. Kerry and McCain: “If they want to lead on the privacy issue, they’ll lead by getting the federal government’s house in order.”

Blurry Lines, Discrete Acts, and Government Searches

I’ve written before about the “Mosaic Theory” some courts have recently employed to conclude that certain forms of government surveillance may trigger Fourth Amendment protection in the aggregate, even if the surveillance can be broken down into components that don’t fall under the traditional definition of a Fourth Amendment “search.” This has been applied specifically to high-tech forms of location tracking, where several judges have concluded that a person may have a privacy interest in the totality of their public movements over a long period of time, even though observing a person at any particular public place in a specific instance is not an intrusion on privacy. I’ve explained in that previous post why I find this reasoning compelling. Legal scholar Orin Kerr, however, remains unmoved, and suggests that divergent decisions applying the Mosaic Theory to government acquisition of stored cell phone location records effectively serve as a reductio of that theory:

To my mind, this opinion reveals the absurdity of Maynard’s mosaic theory. The analysis is all “look ma, no hands.” No one knows where the line is, or even what the line is. Sure, you could just count days of surveillance: perhaps 30 days triggers a warrant but 29 days doesn’t. But there is no reason the access to records has to be continuous. The government can skip around days, or get records from a few days here and a few days there. Who can tell how much is enough? No one knows what is revealing, because what is revealing depends on what the records actually say — and no one but the phone companies know what they say. So Judge Orenstein has to wing it, announcing that “he cannot assume” that the information would be revealing because it has breaks in time. But it’s not clear to me why the break in time matters: It’s the same net amount of data collected, so I don’t know why it matters if it was collected all at once or over several discrete periods. And how much of a break matters? If 21 days is too long, is 21 days with a one-day break enough? How about a 3-day break? One week? No one knows, it seems, not even the judge himself. [….]

There are some readers who will say that the cause of justice sometimes requires hard decisions, and that if judges need to make arbitrary calls like that, then that is what we pay them to do in order to enforce the Constitution. But as I see it, the oddity of the inquiries called for by the Maynard mosaic theory shows why it is not part of the Constitution at all. In Fourth Amendment law, the lawfulness of government conduct has always been viewed discretely: Each government act is either a search or it is not a search. Under Maynard, conduct can be a non-search if viewed in isolation but a search if viewed in context — but there is no guide to tell how much context is proper. If you want to say that certain conduct is a search, then just be direct and say it’s a search. That’s fine. But a mosaic theory, in which non-searches become searches if grouped a particular way, has no proper place in Fourth Amendment law.

Orin’s point about the seeming arbitrariness of these determinations—and the difficulties it presents to police officers who need a rule to rely on—is certainly well taken. The problem is, the government is always going to have substantial control over how any particular effort at information gathering is broken into “acts” that the courts are bound to view “discretely.” If technology makes it easy to synthesize distinct pieces of information, and Fourth Amendment scrutiny is concerned exclusively with whether each particular “act” of information acquisition constitutes a search, the government ends up with substantial ability to game the system by structuring its information gathering as a series of acquisitions, each individually below the threshold.

Let’s consider a concrete case involving location monitoring. Under the Supreme Court’s ruling in United States v. Karo, technological location monitoring does count as a Fourth Amendment search requiring a warrant when it reveals information about where the tracking device is located within a private place, such as a home. On this theory, if the police want to be able to pinpoint a target’s location with sufficient precision to be able to tell when he goes from the garage on one side of the house to the bedroom at the other end, they’ll need a full blown search warrant. If they just want to know the general area the target is in—which cellular tower the phone is closest to, for instance—a subpoena or another less demanding form of court order might be sufficient.

There are, however, several methods of determining a phone’s precise location by triangulation, using data from multiple cell towers—and many cell networks use these methods to provide location services. The records from any one cell tower only yield a very general radius within which each phone registered at that tower can be presumed to be located. Combine the records from the three nearest towers, however, along with some measurements of signal strength and timing, and in an urban area where towers are relatively densely packed, you can often pinpoint the phone within a few meters.

Let’s suppose, then, that existing doctrine would require a warrant if police plan to go to the phone company and say: “We want you to triangulate the precise location of this phone for us over the past month, including at times when our suspect was at home.” What a hassle! They’ve got an out, though: They can issue separate requests for the records from each tower, then combine the data and do the triangulation themselves. As long as each request “viewed discretely” doesn’t yield enough information to pinpoint the phone within the home, there’s no search!

I don’t mean to suggest that, in practice, police are likely to use this particular method to circumvent the warrant requirement—though I wouldn’t be shocked either. But I think the example illustrates a problem with Orin’s categorical insistence on making the binary search/no-search determination only with respect to isolated “acts” of government, when the government itself controls how its monitoring is distributed across discrete acts.

Here’s another example, and one where I think there is a very real possibility that investigators are able, in practice, to game the standards governing electronic surveillance. According to the Justice Department’s U.S. Attorneys Manual, a “pen register” (which can be obtained much more easily than a search warrant) can be used to obtain general information about the domains or IP addresses a target is visiting, but not what particular pages somebody is reading. The idea is that there’s a sharp Fourth Amendment distinction between the “content” of a communication—its “meaning or purport”—and the non-content transactional information, such as the phone number or IP address, which tells you something about who is communicating, but not what is communicated. But there’s a loophole:

This policy does not apply to applications for pen register orders that would merely authorize collection of Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, even if such IP addresses can be readily translated into URLs or portions of URLs. Similarly, this policy does not apply to the collection, at a web server, of tracing information indicating the source of requests to view a particular URL using a trap and trace order.

Emphasis added. Roughly translated, this means that the government can obtain records showing that I accessed (say) the IP address of a particular political Web site, but not which specific articles I was reading. However, they may be able to separately go to that site and request the transactional logs for each article, then search through those to determine which articles were sent to me.

It seems very likely that technology will increasingly permit this kind of multi-step searching, perhaps in ways we can’t yet predict. For all that Orin is right to worry about the practical difficulty of determining how to group discrete acts of information gathering, the consequences of dogmatically insisting on evaluating each “act” in isolation seem equally absurd if it implies that the government will have the practical ability to transform a Fourth Amendment “search” into an unregulated (or much less regulated) “non-search” just by breaking it into smaller pieces.

“To Declare [Kinetic Military Action]”

Recently, I’ve been blogging over at the Washington Examiner’s lively “Beltway Confidential” site, mostly on the subject of congressional war powers and President Obama’s Libyan adventure. Today’s post, “Obama Makes ‘Kinetic Military Action’ on the English Language” has a little fun with the administration’s wordgames and the legal rationales behind them. Other posts and a column on the subject are here, here, and here.

Today also brings a pair of columns–in the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, respectively–from conservative luminaries defending the notion that Obama has the constitutional power to bomb Libya without congressional authorization. Yoo, the legal architect of George W. Bush’s Terror Presidency, chides Tea Party Republicans like Jason Chaffetz of Utah and Justin Amash of Michigan for questioning Obama’s authority to launch a nondefensive war:

Their praiseworthy opposition to the growth of federal powers at home misleads them to resist Washington’s indispensable role abroad. They mistakenly read the 18th-century constitutional text through a modern lens—for example, understanding “declare war” to mean “start war.” When the Constitution was written, a declaration of war served diplomatic notice about a change in legal relations between nations. It had little to do with launching hostilities. In the century before the Constitution, for example, Great Britain fought numerous major conflicts but declared war only once beforehand.

Similarly, in the Post, David B. Rivkin, Jr., and Lee A. Casey write:

As commander in chief, the president has the authority to determine when and how U.S. forces are used…. When the Constitution was adopted, the power to “declare war” was not equivalent to permitting the use of military force.

The president certainly can’t derive the authority to bomb Libya from the commander-in-chief clause. As Hamilton explained in Federalist 69, that provision merely indicates that the president is the “first General and admiral” of US military forces. Important as they are, generals and admirals don’t get to decide whether and with whom we go to war.

It’s more common for presidentialists to combine a broad reading of Article II, sec. 1’s “executive Power” with an exceptionally narrow interpretation of Article I, sec. 8’s congressional power “to declare War,” to conclude that the president can start wars, leaving it up to Congress to make it official if they so choose.

One problem with that view is that virtually no one from the Founding Generation seems to have understood the clause in that way. For example, James Wilson told the Pennsylvania ratifying convention that ‘‘this system will not hurry us into war; it is calculated to guard against it. It will not be in the power of a single man, or a single body of men, to involve us in such distress; for the important power in declaring war is vested in the legislature at large.’’ Pierce Butler, like Wilson, had been a delegate to the Philadelphia Convention, and–to the dismay of some delegates–had actually argued for vesting the power to go to war in the president. Yet during the ratification debates, Butler assured the South Carolina legislature that the proposed constitution prevented the president from starting wars: ‘‘Some gentlemen [i.e., Butler himself] were inclined to give this power to the President; but it was objected to, as throwing into his hands the influence of a monarch, having an opportunity of involving his country in a war whenever he wished to promote her destruction.’’

As Professor Michael Ramsey puts it:

Every major figure from the founding era who commented on the matter said that the Constitution gave Congress the exclusive power to commit the nation to hostilities. Notably, this included not only people with reservations about presidential power, such as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, but also strong advocates of the President’s prerogatives, such as George Washington and Alexander Hamilton.

“How could this be, though,” Ramsey asks, “if Congress has only the power to ‘declare War’, which we may think refers to making a (now-outmoded) formal announcement? Why can’t the President begin a war informally, merely by ordering an attack, without a declaration?” The answer:

…is that in founding-era terminology war could be “declared” either by formal announcement or by military action initiating hostilities. John Locke’s classic Two Treatises of Government from the late 17th century referred to “declar[ing] by word or action.” Blackstone and Vattel, two of the 18th century legal writers most influential in America, also used “declare” in this way…. Johnson’s dictionary gave as one definition of “declare” to “shew in open view” – which, applied to warfare, would obviously encompass military attacks…. Thus in 18th century terms initiating an attack was as much “to declare war” as was making a formal announcement; Congress’ Article I, Section 8 power is not narrowly about issuing formal announcements, but broadly about authorizing the sorts of actions that begin war.

Professor Ramsey lays out the argument in greater detail in his book The Constitution’s Text in Foreign Affairs, and in his (for my money) devastating 2002 rebuttal of Yoo [JSTOR] in the University of Chicago Law Review. Ramsey has further thoughts on the poverty of the argument from “past practice” here as does GMU law professor and Cato adjunct scholar Ilya Somin here.

One last point. While this doesn’t speak directly to the original meaning of the “Declare War” clause, I think it’s worth noting nonetheless:

Like Yoo, Rivkin, and Casey, I’m convinced that Obamacare’s individual mandate is unconstitutional. But consider how that view fits with their other views on federal power. They’ve argued, among other things, that the president can order up bombing raids without so much as a by-your-leave to Congress. As Yoo puts it, the president has the “right to start wars”, for good reasons, bad reasons, or no reason at all, presumably. If the president suspects you’re a terrorist, he doesn’t need a warrant to tap your phone, and, right here in America, he can send soldiers to search your house without offending the Fourth Amendment. He can (according to Yoo, at least) ignore the federal statute prohibiting torture, and he can lock you up for the duration of the war on terror (forever?) without charges.

But there is one thing that he can never, ever do: he cannot penalize you for failure to purchase health insurance. Ours is a government of limited powers, you see.

Taken all in all, doesn’t that constitutional vision strike you as… strange?

Sen. Paul and the Writs of Assistance

Senator Rand Paul is moving beyond economic issues. His critique of the Patriot Act may be found here.

Sen. Paul lauds James Otis, Jr, the most important opponent of the writs of assistance imposed by the British prior to the American Revolution.  By invoking the name of this great patriot, Sen. Paul is trying to recall for Americans the original meaning of our Revolution and Constitution. He is practicing a politics of the original public meaning of America.

An astonishing performance.

Patriot Reauthorization Vote Fails… Now What?

First, the good news: Last night, civil libertarians had a rare excuse to pop champagne when an effort to fast-track a one-year reauthorization of three controversial Patriot Act provisions–set to expire at the end of the month–failed in the House of Representatives. As Slate’s Dave Weigel notes, the vote had been seen as such a sure thing that Politico headlined its story on the pending vote “Congress set to pass Patriot Act extension.” Around this time last year, a similar extension won House approval by a lopsided 315-97 vote.

Now the reality check: The large majority of representatives also voted for reauthorization last night: 277 for, 148 against. The vote failed only because GOP leadership had sought to ram the bill through under a “suspension of the rules”–a streamlined process generally used for the most uncontroversial bills, limiting debate and barring the introduction of amendments–which required a two-thirds majority for passage. Given last week’s developments in the Senate, it’s still a near certainty that the expiring provisions will be extended again before the end of the month. In fact, there’s a Rules Committee meeting today to get the bill back on the House floor. Also, while the defection of 26 Republicans who voted against reauthorization is the first real pushback against leadership we’ve seen since the GOP took the House, some of the talk that’s circulated about a Tea Party backlash against the surveillance state seems premature. As Weigel notes, just eight of the 26 Republican “no” votes were incoming freshmen, and many representatives prominently associated with the Tea Party were on the other side. Some of the resistance seems to have been generated by the fast-track approach, as there haven’t been any hearings or mark-ups on Patriot legislation.

That said, the tide does seem to be shifting somewhat. The failure of the fast-track vote means that we may see the reauthorization introduced under rules that would allow amendments aimed at remedying the civil liberties problems with the three expiring provisions, or with the still more controversial Patriot expansion of National Security Letter authority, which under current law does not expire. For those just tuning in, the sunsetting Patriot provisions are:

Lone Wolf

So-called “lone wolf” authority allows non-citizens in the U.S. who are suspected of involvement in terrorist activities to be monitored under the broad powers afforded by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), even if they are not connected to any overseas terror group or other “foreign power.” It was passed after FBI claimed the absence of “lone wolf” authority stymied efforts to monitor the infamous “20th 9/11 Hijacker”–but a bipartisan Senate report found that this failure was actually the result of a series of gross errors by the FBI, not any gap in government surveillance powers. Moreover, Lone Wolf blurs the traditional–and constitutionally significant–distinction between foreign intelligence, where the executive enjoys greater latitude, and domestic national security investigations. The way the statute is written, Lone Wolf authority is only available in circumstances where investigators would already be able to obtain a criminal terrorism wiretap. Given of the sweeping nature of FISA surveillance, that more narrow criminal surveillance authority should be employed when the special needs imposed by the involvement of a “foreign power” are not present.

Roving Wiretaps

Roving wiretap authority allows intelligence wiretap orders to follow a target across multiple phone lines or online accounts. Similar authority has been available in criminal investigations since 1986, but Patriot’s roving wiretaps differ from the version available in criminal cases, because the target of an order may be “described” rather than identified. Courts have stressed this requirement for identification of a named target as a feature that enables criminal roving wiretaps to satisfy the “particularity” requirement of the Fourth Amendment. Patriot’s roving taps, by contrast, raise the possibility of “John Doe” warrants that name neither a person nor a specific “place” or facility–disturbingly similar to the “general warrants” the Founders were concerned to prohibit when they crafted the Fourth Amendment. Given the general breadth of FISA surveillance and the broad potential scope of online investigations, John Doe warrants would pose a high risk of “overcollecting” innocent Americans’ communications. Most civil liberties advocates would be fine with making this authority permanent if it were simply modified to match the criminal authority and foreclose the possibility of “John Doe” warrants by requiring either a named individual target or a list of specific facilities to be wiretapped.

Section 215

Section 215 expanded the authority of the FISA Court to compel the production of business records or any other “tangible thing.” While previously such orders were limited to narrow classes of businesses and records, and required a showing of “specific and articulable facts” that the records sought pertain to an agent of a foreign power, Patriot stripped away those limits. The current law requires only a showing of “reasonable grounds” to believe records are “relevant” to an investigation, not probable cause, and has no requirement that people whose information is obtained be even suspected of any connection to terrorism. And the recipients of these orders are barred from Proposals to restore some of the previous checks on this power–requiring some demonstrable connection to terroris–initially received bipartisan support last year, but were torpedoed when the Justice Department objected that this limitation would interfere with a secret “sensitive collection program.” Several senators briefed on the program have expressed concern that this sweeping collection authority was being reauthorized without adequate public understanding of its true purpose.

So those are the sunsetting provisions–though a lot of the debate last year very justifiably centered on the need to reform National Security Letters, which we know to be constitutionally defective, and which have already been subject to serious abuses. One reason reform keeps getting postponed is that Congress is busy and tends not to make time for these issues until the sunset deadlines are right around the corner–at which point a reliable band of pundits and legislators imply that absolute bedlam will ensue unless every single surveillance authority is extended–meaning reform will have to wait until later, at which point it will be an emergency all over again. Once you start looking at the numbers, though, all these Chicken Littles begin to look faintly ridiculous.

The Lone Wolf provision is such an essential intelligence tool that it has never been used. Not a single time. And again, by the terms of the statute, it only applies under circumstances where a criminal wiretap warrant would already be available if Lone Wolf authority didn’t exist. Roving authority is granted by the FISA Court an average of 22 times per year, and in many (if not most) of those cases it never actually has to be used–surveillance is limited to named facilities. To put that in context, the FISA court issued 1,320 electronic surveillance orders in 2009, and that was the first time in 5 years the number fell below 2,000. So we’re talking about maybe 1 percent of FISA surveillance, which judging by internal oversight reports, is a good deal less than the portion that ends up sitting untranslated for months anyway. Similarly, there were 21 business records orders under §215 issued in 2009–and remember, that authority doesn’t disappear if this provision sunsets, it just reverts to its narrower, pre–Patriot version, where the court needs to see actual evidence that the records have some connection to a suspected terrorist. Surveys by the Inspector General’s office found no instances in which a major case development resulted from 215 information. The idea that we’d somehow be in grave danger if these provisions lapsed for a few months just doesn’t hold up, but there’s no reason Congress can’t pass a two-month extension while they consider some of the reforms already on the table, just as they did last year.

So let’s stop living in a state of perpetual panic. Some of these provisions we’d be better off without. Some, like roving wiretaps, just need minor tweaks to close loopholes for misuse. Some–I’m looking at you, National Security Letters–require substantial reform. Many of these changes ought to be common sense, and have attracted bipartisan support in the past. But let’s stop kicking the can down the road and saying we’ll debate the proper limits on the surveillance state when there’s time. It’s important enough that Congress can make time.

Jeff McKay: A Limp Rag Masquerading as a Terror Warrior

This afternoon I briefly attended a meeting of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority board to comment on the question whether there should be random bag searches in the D.C. area’s subway system. A variety of other liberty loving D.C.-area residents spoke up against bag searches, noting the weakness of the practice in terms of security, the privacy consequences, and the insult to Metro riders in treating all as suspects. The chairman of the Riders Advisory Council asked that the program be suspended.

Along with restating the security weakness of random bag searches—it simply transfers risk from one station to another, from the subway to busses, or from the Metro system to other infrastructure—I emphasized the strategic consequences of the policy:

Terrorists try to instill fear and drive victim states to over-reaction. They try to knock us off our game. The appropriate response is not to give in to fear-based impulses. Obviously, we can and do secure what can cost-effectively be secured. And where infrastructure can’t be secured specifically, many other layers of security are protecting the society as a whole—aware people, ordinary law enforcement, targeted lawful investigation of terror suspects, and international intelligence and diplomatic efforts.

WMATA can play a part in our security, but in a very different way than by making a great show of desperately searching passengers. Refusing the bag search policy can signal to D.C. area residents and the nation that we are relatively secure, because we are. Al Qaeda is on the run, and the franchises it inspired are generally incompetent.

When America’s capital city abandons bag searching, it will be a small but important signal that terrorism doesn’t knock us off our game. Consistency in this message over time will weaken terrorism and ultimately reduce terror attacks from their already low numbers.

There will never be perfect security, but security measures that cost more than they benefit our security make us worse off, not better off. They make us victims of terrorism’s strategic logic.

Fairfax County Supervisor Jeff McKay disagrees. An alternate member of the WMATA board, he is the picture of the politician  in thrall to terrorism. During the discussion of the Riders Advisory Council report, he stated—as a moral obligation, no less—that he should assume the existence of substantial threats to the Metro system because some authorities claim secret knowledge to that effect.

Whether there are threats or not, this does not respond at all to the point that random bag searches would not address them. Again, they transfer risk from one Metro station to another, from Metro stations to Metro busses, or from the Metro system to other infrastructure in the D.C. area.

We often joke about politicians who say “something must be done; this is something; this must be done,” but when you see it live and in person, it’s really stupid.

McKay seemed to take righteous pride in abdicating his responsibility to understand basic security principles as they pertain to the Metro system. He did note the bind that the board is in. They’re damned if they do bag searches because of the complaints from the community, and they’re damned if they don’t because something bad might happen.

McKay’s choice is to spend the money of District-area governments and undercut the civil liberties of Metro riders so that, in the unlikely event a terror attack occurs, his political career is protected. He can say “I tried to stop it with bag searches.” Never mind that it was an ineffective measure.

McKay thinks he’s doing the right thing, but that doesn’t excuse his being a patsy to the terrorism strategy. He’s a limp rag, abdicating his security responsibility while pretending that he fights terrorism.