Tag: justice department

Congress’s Diminishing Power of the Purse

One of the most important aspects of the separation of powers is the commitment of the power of the purse to the legislative branch. It constrains the executive and the judiciary from engaging in unilateral action without congressional approval. If there’s no approval, there will be no money to pay for the executive action, as the rule would have it. Unsurprisingly, with the advent of the administrative state and an aggressive executive, this power has been significantly diminished in modern times

Indeed, Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution provides expressly that “[t]he Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts,” to the exclusion of any other branch’s exercise of those powers. The upshot: the separation of powers, especially Congress’ power over appropriation priorities, is eroded as executive agencies and executive allies have access to funds not appropriated by Congress.

In order to keep their power of the purse intact, Congress originally enacted the Miscellaneous Receipts Statute in 1849. That law is now codified today in Title 31 of the U.S. Code. It requires all government officials in receipt of funds, such as settlements from civil or criminal enforcement, to deposit that money with the Treasury. As a structural point, the law effectively aims at stopping executive agencies from self-funding through enforcement or other receipts of money. It maintains their dependence on Congress for their annual appropriation.

However, the Justice Department has found a way around this law to fund political allies on the left or executive priorities without congressional approval: settlement agreements. As Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel recently reported, “[i]t works like this: The Justice Department prosecutes cases against supposed corporate bad actors. Those companies agree to settlements that include financial penalties. Then Justice mandates that at least some of that penalty money be paid in the form of “donations” to nonprofits that supposedly aid consumers and bolster neighborhoods.”

The trick here is that Justice never “receives” the funds within the meaning of the Miscellaneous Receipts Statute, and thus has no requirement to deposit the funds it exacts from defendants with the Treasury—the donations are made directly without money ever being received into Justice’s hands.

Despite the fact that Justice Guidance discourages the practice because “it can create actual or perceived conflicts of interest and/or other ethical issues”—and, indeed, it was almost banned in 2008 due to perceptions of abuse—Justice continues to push this method of funding political allies and favored priorities of the executive. In fact, “[i]n 2011 Republicans eliminated the Housing Department’s $88 million for ‘housing counseling’ programs,” Strassel reports, “which spread around money to groups like La Raza. Congress subsequently restored only $45 million, and has maintained that level. . . [B]ank settlements pour some $30 million into housing counseling groups, thereby essentially restoring all the funding.”

Drug Warriors Wrong on Marijuana Ballot Initiatives

Three states’ ballot initiatives might legalize the recreational use of marijuana this year. To the displeasure of some current and former drug warriors, the Obama Department of Justice is silent on the matter.

Those urging the feds to weigh in, unfortunately, rest their case on some bad reasoning:

But their claim is just not true. Here’s why. Let’s say the feds have a law banning the use of sugar in iced tea. An example of a state law that conflicts with this federal law would be one that requires the use of sugar in iced tea, not a state law that simply permits the use of sugar. A failure to adopt a law that prohibits the same thing the feds prohibit is simply not a conflict.

Another reason the Justice Department may be silent on these state ballot initiatives? President Obama is less popular nationwide than marijuana legalization.

In today’s Cato Daily Podcast, Tim Lynch goes through some of the other reasons why these drug warriors are confused on the facts.

Why Roger Clemens—And John Edwards—Beat the Feds

At Forbes, Daniel Fisher asks a former federal official whether a thread connects the failed white-collar prosecutions of the onetime presidential candidate and the baseball great. Yes, as a matter of fact, there might: “Jurors could be sending a message to Washington they don’t like the awesome firepower of the Justice Dept. brought to bear on borderline cases without an obvious victim.”

Another Transparency Fail

According to a lengthy article in today’s Washington Post, “hundreds of defendants nationwide remain in prison or on parole for crimes that might merit exoneration, a retrial or retesting of evidence using DNA because FBI hair and fiber experts may have misidentified them as suspects.” The report says government officials have known for years that flawed forensic work might be responsible for convicting and incarcerating innocent people, but the defendants and their attorneys were never notified.

That’s difficult to believe because the Justice Department has said many times that it is totally committed to the goal of making the Obama administration the “most transparent Administration in history.” Attorney General Eric Holder will certainly admit that something is amiss when his department is holding exculpatory information and keeping it under wraps—but maybe he believes this is proof that his department is underfunded.  Hardly.

Wittgenstein, Private Language, and Secret Law

One would like to say: whatever is going to seem right to me is right. And that only means that here we can’t talk about ‘right.’ — Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations §258

Among the arguments for which the great 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is famous, perhaps the best known—and most controversial—is his argument for the impossibility of a truly “private language.” Since Wittgenstein’s own language was, if not quite “private,” notoriously opaque, it’s a matter of some controversy exactly what the argument is, but here’s a very crude summary of one common interpretation:

Language is, by it’s nature, a rule-governed enterprise. Under normal circumstances, for instance, I use words correctly when I say “there’s a yellow school bus outside,” just in case there is a yellow school bus outside. If, instead, there’s a blue Prius, then I may be lying, or trying to make some sort of signally unfunny joke, or confused about either the facts or about what words mean—but I am, one way or another, using the words “incorrectly.” And indeed, the only way words like “yellow” and “school bus” can have any specific meaning is if they’re correctly applied to some things, but not to others.

Now suppose I decide to invent my own private language, meant to describe my own internal sensations and mental states, maybe for the purpose of recording them in a personal diary. On the first day, I experience a particular sensation I decide to call “S,” and record in my diary: “Today I felt S.” As time passes, on some days I write S to describe my private sensations, and on other days maybe I come up with different labels—maybe T, U, and V. This certainly looks like a private language, but there’s a problem: each time I write down “S,” the idea is suppose to be that I’m recording that I had the same sensation I had the first day—S—and not T, U, or V. But what’s the criteria for “the same”? What makes it true that my sensation on day 27 really is “more like” the sensation S that I had on day 1, and not V, which I first had on day 16? How do I know that this new sensation is really an S and not a V? (Say S was an itch in my hand; will I be correct to use S to refer to an itch in my shoulder? Or a pain in my hand? Or for that matter a pain in my shoulder?) The only criterion is that it seems or feels that way to me. But in that case, I’m not really engaged in a rule-governed language system at all, because in effect S applies to whatever I decide it does. Since I can never really be wrong, it doesn’t really make sense to say I’m ever right in my use either. Since the terms are truly private, there’s no difference between “correctly applying S” and “specifying in greater detail what S means.” What looked like a “private language” was actually just a kind of pantomime of a true, rule-governed language.

I found myself thinking of Wittgenstein and his private language argument, oddly enough, when thinking about the various forms of “secret law” and “secret legal interpretations” that increasingly govern our endless War on Terror. Consider, for instance, the secret legal memorandum justifying the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki, discussed in an October 8 New York Times piece:

The legal analysis, in essence, concluded that Mr. Awlaki could be legally killed, if it was not feasible to capture him, because intelligence agencies said he was taking part in the war between the United States and Al Qaeda and posed a significant threat to Americans, as well as because Yemeni authorities were unable or unwilling to stop him.

Whether or not one agrees with the substantive principle articulated here, this at least sounds like a real rule limiting the discretion of the executive. Except…who decides when a capture is “not feasible” (as opposed to merely risky, costly, or inconvenient)? The same executive who is meant to apply and be bound by the rule. Who determines when the threat posed by a citizen is “significant” enough to permit targeting? Again, the executive.

This is not, one might object, a wholly “private” interpretive problem, because the Office of Legal Counsel provides some kind of quasi-independent check: it will occasionally tell even a president that what he wants to do isn’t legal. But in that case, the president can simply do what Barack Obama did in the case of his intervention in Libya: keep asking different legal advisers until one of them gives you the answer you want, then decide that the more favorable opinion overrides whatever OLC had concluded.

Similar considerations apply to the “secret law” of surveillance. The FBI may issue National Security Letters for certain specific types of records—including “toll billing records”—without judicial approval, but these secret demands must at least be “relevant to an authorized investigation.” A weak limit, we might think, but at least a limit. Yet, again, the apparent limitation is illusory: it is the Justice Department itself that determines what may count as an “authorized investigation.” When Congress initially passed the Patriot Act a decade ago, an “authorized investigation” meant a “full investigation” predicated on some kind of real evidence of wrongdoing. Just a few years later, though, the attorney general’s guidelines were changed to permit their use in much more speculative “preliminary investigations,” and soon enough, the majority of NSLs were being used in such preliminary investigations. Needless to say, “relevance” too is very much in the eye of the beholder.

In most of these cases, the prospects for external limitation are slim. First, of course, anyone who disagreed with the executive’s secret interpretation would have to find out about it—which may happen only years after the fact in whatever unknowable percentage of cases it ever happens at all. Then they’d have to overcome the extraordinary deference of our court system to assertions of the State Secrets Privilege just to be able to have a court consider whether the government had acted illegally. In practice, then, the executive is defining the terms of, and interpreting, the same rules that supposedly bind it.

The usual thing to say about this scenario is that it shows the importance of checks and balances in preventing the law from being perverted or abused. If we think there is at least a rough analogy between these cases and Wittgenstein’s diarist writing in a “private language,” though, we’ll see that this doesn’t go quite far enough. What we should say, rather, is that these are cases where “secret law,” like “private language” is not merely practically dangerous but conceptually incoherent. They are not genuine cases of “legal interpretation” at all, but only a kind of pantomime. Perhaps what we should say in these cases is not that the president or the executive branch may have violated the law—as though there were still, in general, some background binding principles—but that in these institutional contexts one simply cannot speak of actions as “in accordance with” or “contrary to” the law at all.  Where the possibility of external correction is foreclosed, the objectionable and unobjectionable decisions alike are, inherently, lawless.

Stalking the Secret Patriot Act

Since this spring’s blink-and-you-missed-it debate over reauthorization of several controversial provisions of the Patriot Act, Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Mark Udall (D-CO) have been complaining to anyone who’d listen about a “Secret Patriot Act“—an interpretation of one of the law’s provisions by the classified Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court granting surveillance powers exceeding those an ordinary person would understand to be conferred from the text of the statute itself. As I argued at the time, there is an enormous amount of strong circumstantial evidence suggesting that this referred to a “sensitive collection program” involving cell phone location tracking—potentially on a mass scale—using Patriot’s “Section 215” or “business records” authority.

Lest anyone think they’d let the issue drop, Wyden and Udall last week released a sharply-worded letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, blasting the Justice Department for misleading the public about the scope of the government’s surveillance authority. The real audience for an open letter of this sort, of course, is not the nominal recipient, but rather the press and the public. Beyond simply reminding us that the issue exists, the letter confirms for the first time that the “secret law” of which the senators had complained does indeed involve Section 215. But there are some additional intriguing morsels for the attentive surveillance wonk.

The letter focuses particularly on “highly misleading” statements by Justice Department officials analogizing Section 215 powers to grand jury subpoenas. “As you know,” Wyden and Udall write, “Section 215 authorities are not interpreted in the same way that grand jury subpoena authorities are, and we are concerned that when Justice Department officials suggest that the two authorities are ‘analogous’ they provide the public with a false understanding of how surveillance law is interpreted in practice.”

Now, this is a little curious on its face. Ever since the original debate over the passage of the Patriot Act, its defenders have tried to claim that a variety of provisions allowing the FBI to more easily obtain sensitive records and documents were no big deal, because grand juries have long enjoyed similarly broad subpoena powers. The comparison has been specious all along: grand juries are an arm of the judicial branch designed (at leas in theory) to serve as a buffer between the power of prosecutors and the citizenry. It exists for the specific purpose of determining whether grounds for a criminal indictment exist, and is granted those broad subpoena powers precisely on the premise that it is not just another executive branch investigative agency. To argue, then, that it would make no difference if the FBI or the police could secretly exercise the same type of authority is to miss the point of how our system of government is meant to work in a pretty stunning way. It’s akin to suggesting that, since juries can sentence people to life in prison, it would be no big deal to give the president or the director of the FBI the same power.

That’s not what Wyden and Udall are stressing here, however. Rather, they seem to be suggesting that the scope of the 215 authority itself has been secretly interpreted in a way that goes beyond the scope of the grand jury subpoena power. Now that ought to be striking, because the grand jury’s power to compel the production of documents really is quite broad. Yet, what Wyden and Udall appear to be suggesting is that there is some kind of limit or restriction that does apply to grand jury subpoenas, but has been held by the secret court not to apply to Section 215 orders. One possibility is that the FISC may have seen fit to issue prospective 215 orders, imposing an ongoing obligation on telecommunications companies or other recipients to keep producing records related to a target as they’re created, rather than being limited to records and documents already in existence. But given the quantity of evidence that already suggests the “Secret Patriot Act” involves location tracking, I find it suggestive that the very short list of specific substantive limits on grand jury subpoena power in the U.S. Attorneys’ Manual includes this:

It is improper to utilize the grand jury solely as an investigative aid in the search for a fugitive in whose testimony the grand jury has no interest. In re Pedro Archuleta, 432 F. Supp. 583 (S.D.N.Y. 1977); In re Wood, 430 F. Supp. 41 (S.D.N.Y. 1977), aff’d sub nom In re Cueto, 554 F.2d 14 (2d Cir. 1977). … Since indictments for unlawful flight are rarely sought, it would be improper to routinely use the grand jury in an effort to locate unlawful flight fugitives.

As the manual makes clear, the constraints on the power of the grand jury generally are determined by its purpose and function, but locating subjects for the benefit of law enforcement (rather than as a means of securing their testimony before the grand jury) is one of the few things so expressly and specifically excluded. Could this be what Wyden and Udall are obliquely referring to?

On a possibly related note, the Director of National Intelligence’s office sent Wyden and Udall a letter back in July rebuffing his request for information about the legal standard governing geolocation tracking by the intelligence community. While refusing to get into specifics, the letter explains that “there have been a diverse set of rulings concerning the quantum of evidence and the procedures required to obtain such evidence.” Now, a bit of common sense here: it is inconceivable that any judge on the secret court would not permit cell phone geolocation tracking of a target who was the subject of a full-blown FISA electronic surveillance warrant based on probable cause. There would be no “diversity” if the intelligence agencies were uniformly using only that procedure and that “quantum of evidence.” This claim only makes sense if the agencies have sought and, under some circumstances, obtained authorization to track cell phones pursuant to some other legal process requiring a lower evidentiary showing. (Again, you would not have “diversity” if the court had consistently responded to all such requests with: “No, get a warrant.”)

The options here are pretty limited, because the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act only provides for a few different kinds of orders to be issued by the FISC. There’s a full electronic surveillance warrant, requiring a probable cause showing that the target is an “agent of a foreign power.” There’s a warrant for physical search, with the same standard, which doesn’t seem likely to be relevant to geotracking. The only other real options are so-called “pen register” orders, which are used to obtain realtime communications metadata, and Section 215. Both require only that the information sought be “relevant” to an ongoing national security investigation. For pen registers, the applicant need only “certify” that this is the case, which leaves judges with little to do beyond rubber-stamping orders. Section 215 orders require a “statement of facts showing that there are reasonable grounds” to think the information sought is “relevant,” but the statute also provides that any records are automatically relevant if they pertain to a suspected “agent of a foreign power,” or to anyone “in contact with, or known to” such an agent, or to the “activities of a suspected agent of a foreign power who is the subject of [an] authorized investigation.” The only way there can logically be “a diverse set of rulings” about the “quantum of evidence and the procedures required” to conduct cell phone location tracking is if the secret court has, on at least some occasions, allowed it under one or both of those authorities. Perhaps ironically, then, this terse response is not far short of a confirmation.

In criminal investigations, as I noted in a previous post, the Justice Department normally seeks a full warrant in order to do highly accurate, 24-hour realtime location, though it is not clear they believe this is constitutionally required. With a court order for the production of records based on “specific and articulable facts,” they can get call records generally indicating the location of the nearest cell tower when a call was placed—a much less precise and intrusive form of tracking, but one that is increasingly revealing as providers store more data and install ever more cell towers. For realtime tracking that is less precise, they’ll often seek to bundle a records order with a pen register order, to create a “hybrid” tracking order. Judges are increasingly concluding that these standards do not adequately protect constitutional privacy interests, but you’d expect a”diverse set of rulings” if the FISC had adopted a roughly parallel set of rules—except, of course, that the standards for the equivalent orders on the intelligence side are a good deal more permissive. The bottom line, though, is that this makes it all but certain the intelligence agencies are secretly tracking people—and potentially large numbers of people—who it does not have probable cause to believe, and may not even suspect, are involved in terrorism or espionage. No wonder Wyden and Udall are concerned.

Speech, Privacy, and Government Infiltration

Yesterday, I mentioned a recent report from the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General on some potentially improper instances of FBI monitoring of domestic anti-war groups. It occurs to me that it also provides a useful data point that’s relevant to last week’s post about the pitfalls of thinking about the proper limits of government information gathering exclusively in terms of “privacy.”

As the report details, an agent in the FBI’s Pittsburgh office sent a confidential source to report on organizing meetings for anti-war marches held by the anarchist Pittsburgh Organizing Group (POG). The agent admitted to OIG that his motive was a general desire to cultivate an informant rather than any particular factually grounded investigative purpose. Unsurprisingly, reports generated by the source contained “no information remotely relevant to actual or potential criminal activity,” and at least one report was “limited to identifying information about the participants in a political discussion together with characterizations of the contents of the speech of the participants.” The agent dutifully recorded that at one such gathering “Meeting and discussion was primarily anti anything supported by the main stream [sic] American.”

Now, in fact, the OIG suggests that the retention in FBI records of personally identifiable information about citizens’ political speech, unrelated to any legitimate investigation into suspected violations of federal law, may well have violated the Privacy Act. But if we wanted to pick semantic nits, we could surely make the argument that this is not really an invasion of “privacy” as traditionally conceived—and certainly not as conceived by our courts. The gatherings don’t appear to have been very large—the source was able to get the names and ages of all present—but they were, in principle, announced on the Web and open to the public.

Fortunately, the top lawyer at the Pittsburgh office appears to have been duly appalled when he discovered what had been done, and made sure the agents in the office got a refresher training on the proper and improper uses of informants. But as a thought experiment, suppose this sort of thing were routine. Suppose that any “public” political meeting, at least for political views regarded as out of the mainstream, stood a good chance of being attended by a clandestine government informant, who would record the names of the participants and what each of them said, to be filed away in a database indefinitely.  Would you think twice before attending? If so, it suggests that the limits on state surveillance of the population appropriate to a free and democratic society are not exhausted by those aimed at protecting “privacy” in the familiar sense.