Tag: investigative tools

How Many 215 Orders?

There was an interesting exchange during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing yesterday concerning the use of the Patriot Act’s §215 orders for business records and other tangible things. FBI Director Robert Mueller hinted that the orders may have been used to track purchases of hydrogen peroxide purchases in the investigation of aspiring bomber Najibullah Zazi, while Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oreg.) asserted that there is “a huge gap today between how you all are interpreting the PATRIOT Act and what the American people think the PATRIOT Act is all about and it’s going to need to be resolved.”

Let’s leave our curiosity about that by the wayside for the moment, though. I’m curious about one simple empirical claim Mueller made in his testimony: That the provision has been used over 380 times since 2001. I assume he’d know, but that seems inconsistent with what’s been publicly reported to date. It’s worth noting that there are actually minor discrepancies between the numbers provided in Congressional Research Service reports, audits from the Office of the Inspector General, and the Justice Department’s annual reports to Congress. But there are plenty of legitimate reasons these numbers might vary depending on how you count, and the total variance is a difference of about 17 orders total over the years.

We know from those Inspector General reports that the majority of those 215 orders issued were “combination” orders issued in tandem with another type of surveillance order called a “pen register” so that investigators could get subscriber information about the people whose communications patterns they were tracking. When Congress amended the Patriot Act in 2006, it built that authority right into the pen register statute, making it unnecessary to seek those “combination” orders. Prior to the amendment, the government got 173 of those “combination” orders. “Pure” 215 orders, which are now the only type needed, have been used much more sparingly. None were issued at all until 2004, and from 2004 through 2009 (depending on whose tally you want to use) there were between 75 and 92 orders issued (for an average of 12–15 annually since 2004). Throw in the combination orders and the upper-bound number through the end of 2009 is 265 orders.

Unless I’ve miscounted or missed something significant—you can get the reports at the links above and check my math—that leaves 115 orders unaccounted for, assuming Mueller’s number is accurate. There are two possibilities, then: Either the government got ten times as many orders in 2010 as the historical average (the figures should be out sometime in April) or there are a whole lot of these missing from the public reporting. Possibly these have something to do with the “sensitive collection program” in which these orders play a key role, alluded to in a Justice Department official’s testimony at a hearing during the 2009 reauthorization debate. Either alternative seems like it would merit additional scrutiny. I sent an e-mail seeking clarification this morning to some of the experts at the Congressional Research Service responsible for keeping legislators informed on these issues, but haven’t yet heard back.

I’m not belaboring this because it’s inherently hugely significant whether the government has used this authority 265 times or 380. Ideally, in the coming months we’ll see a substantial narrowing of National Security Letter authority, which would predictably lead to a large increase in the number of 215 orders issued. And that would be entirely proper, since it would mean more information being sought pursuant to a judicial order rather than FBI fiat. What I do think is significant, however, is that this reminds us how little we know—and how little the vast majority of legislators know—about the use of these powers. In contrast with criminal investigative tools, these powers are entirely covert: People whose records are swept up by the government almost never learn about it, and the recipients of the orders are subject to an effectively permanent gag on speaking about them. Rulings of the secret FISA Court interpreting the scope of these authorities are never made public. Our assurance that they have been or will continue to be used properly rests entirely on the minimal required reporting to Congress and the findings of internal audits. And yet it’s hard to pin down the facts on even this most elementary factual question about 215 orders: How many times have they been used?

Despite this, we have legislators confident enough that these expanded powers are both so necessary and so well controlled that they’re advocating making them permanent. I wish I were as confident.

A Preemptive Word on “Lone Wolves”

As Marcy Wheeler notes, the press seem to have settled on the term “lone wolf” to describe Fort Hood gunman Nidal Malik Hasan, which means it’s probably only a matter of time before we encounter a pundit or legislator who is cynical or befuddled enough (or both) to invoke the tragedy in defense of the PATRIOT Act’s constitutionally dubious Lone Wolf provision. (A “matter of time” apparently meaning the time it took me to write that sentence: We have a winner!) Though the Senate Judiciary Committee has approved a bill that would renew the measure, their counterparts in the House wisely—though narrowly—voted to permit it to expire last week.

To spare anyone tempted by this argument some embarrassment: The Lone Wolf provision is totally irrelevant to this case. It could not have been used to investigate Hasan, nor would it have been necessary.

The Lone Wolf provision permits the targeting of non-U.S. persons when there is probable cause to believe they’re preparing to engage in acts of international terrorism. Even if we assume the statutory definition of “international terrorism” could be stretched to cover the Fort Hood attack—and perhaps it could—the provision would have been inapplicable to the Virginia–born Hasan.

So were investigators powerless? Of course not. PATRIOT’s Lone Wolf clause relates only to whether the tools available under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act can be invoked. Shooting people, however, is a crime even when committed for reasons having nothing to do with jihad, and the standard for obtaining a warrant—probable cause—is the same. The chief advantage of FISA tools is that they tend to be both highly secret and, in certain respects, broader than criminal investigative tools—features that are vital when dealing with trained terror agents who are working with an international network it’s important not to tip off, but not so much for “lone wolves,” who by definition lack any such network.

In fact, though, even if the most ambitious reforms proposed by Democrats had been in place, PATRIOT powers could have been brought to bear on Hasan had investigators chosen to do so. We are told, for instance, that investigators months ago became aware of Hasan’s efforts to contact al-Qaeda affiliates abroad. That alone would have provided grounds—again, under current law and under the most civil-liberties protective modifications being considered—for the issuance of National Security Letters seeking his financial and telecommunications records.

The truth is that the Lone Wolf provision didn’t help—and couldn’t have helped—stop this “lone wolf.” Indeed, it’s hard to imagine what additional powers would have been useful here given what it seems investigators already knew. As our recent history makes all too clear, what typically makes the difference between intelligence success and failure is not how much information you can get, at least past a certain point, but knowing what to do with the information you’ve got. But of course, that’s difficult to do, and doesn’t tend to be the kind of thing that can be fixed with a couple crude statutory provision you can brag about in press releases to your constituents.  So pundits and legislators see a delicate information processing system failing to flag the right targets and conclude, every time, that the right solution is more juice! Turn up the voltage! Try that troubleshooting strategy with your laptop sometime and let me know how it works out.