Tag: justice department

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.

Every Time I Say “Terrorism,” the Patriot Act Gets More Awesome

Can I send Time magazine the bill for the new crack in my desk and the splinters in my forehead? Because their latest excretion on the case of Colleen “Jihad Jane” LaRose and its relation to Patriot Act surveillance powers is absolutely maddening:

The Justice Department won’t say whether provisions of the Patriot Act were used to investigate and charge Colleen LaRose. But the FBI and U.S. prosecutors who charged the 46-year-old woman from Pennsburg, Pa., on Tuesday with conspiring with terrorists and pledging to commit murder in the name of jihad could well have used the Patriot Act’s fast access to her cell-phone records, hotel bills and rental-car contracts as they tracked her movements and contacts last year. But even if the law’s provisions weren’t directly used against her, the arrest of the woman who allegedly used the moniker “Jihad Jane” is a boost for the Patriot Act, Administration officials and Capitol Hill Democrats say. That’s because revelations of her alleged plot may give credibility to calls for even greater investigative powers for the FBI and law enforcement, including Republican proposals to expand certain surveillance techniques that are currently limited to targeting foreigners.

Sadly, this is practically a genre resorted to by lazy writers whenever a domestic terror investigation is making headlines. It consists of indulging in a lot of fuzzy speculation about how the Patriot Act might have been crucial—for all we know!—to a successful  investigation, even when every shred of available public evidence suggests otherwise.  My favorite exemplar of this genre comes from a Fox News piece penned by journalist-impersonator Cristina Corbin after the capture of some Brooklyn bomb plotters last spring, with the bold headline: “Patriot Act Likely Helped Thwart NYC Terror Plot, Security Experts Say.” The actual article contains nothing to justify the headline: It quotes some lawyers saying vague positive things about the Patriot Act, then tries to explain how the law expanded surveillance powers, but mostly botches the basic facts.  From what we know thanks to the work of real reporters,  the initial tip and the key evidence in that case came from a human infiltrator who steered the plotters to locations that had been physically bugged, not new Patriot tools.

Of course, it may well be that National Security Letters or other Patriot powers were invoked at some point in this investigation—the question is whether there’s any good reason to suspect they made an important difference. And that seems highly dubious. LaRose’s indictment cites the content of private communications, which probably would have been obtained using a boring old probable cause warrant—and the standard for that is far higher than for a traditional pen/trap order, which would have enabled them to be getting much faster access to more comprehensive cell records. Maybe earlier on, then, when they were compiling the evidence for those tools?  But as several reports on the investigation have noted, “Jihad Jane” was being tracked online by a groups of anti-jihadi amateurs some three years ago. As a member of one group writes sarcastically on the site Jawa Report, the “super sekrit” surveillance tool they used to keep abreast of LaRose’s increasingly disturbing activities was… Google. I’m going to go out on a limb and say the FBI could’ve handled this one with pre-Patriot authority, and a fortiori with Patriot authority restrained by some common-sense civil liberties safeguards.

What’s a little more unusual is to see this segue into the kind of argument we usually see in the wake of an intelligence failure, where the case is then seen as self-evidently justifying still more intrusive surveillance powers, in this case the expansion of the “lone wolf” authority currently applicable only to foreigners, allowing extraordinarily broad and secretive FISA surveillance to be conducted against people with no actual ties to a terror group or other “foreign power.” Yet as Time itself notes:

In fact, Justice Department terrorism experts are privately unimpressed by LaRose. Hers was not a particularly threatening plot, they say, and she was not using any of the more challenging counter-surveillance measures that more experienced jihadis, let alone foreign intelligence agents, use.

Which, of course, is a big part of the reason we have a separate system for dealing with agents of foreign powers: They are typically trained in counterintelligence tradecraft with access to resources and networks far beyond those of ordinary nuts. What possible support can LaRose’s case provide for the proposition that these industrial-strength tools should now be turned on American citizens?  They caught her—and without much trouble, by the looks of it. Sure, this domestic nut may have invoked to Islamist ideology rather than the commands of Sam the Dog or anti-Semitic conspiracy theories… but so what? She’s still one more moderately dangerous unhinged American in a country that has its fair share, and has been dealing with them pretty well under the auspices of Title III for a good while now.

Three Keys to Surveillance Success: Location, Location, Location

The invaluable Chris Soghoian has posted some illuminating—and sobering—information on the scope of surveillance being carried out with the assistance of telecommunications providers.  The entire panel discussion from this year’s ISS World surveillance conference is well worth listening to in full, but surely the most striking item is a direct quotation from Sprint’s head of electronic surveillance:

[M]y major concern is the volume of requests. We have a lot of things that are automated but that’s just scratching the surface. One of the things, like with our GPS tool. We turned it on the web interface for law enforcement about one year ago last month, and we just passed 8 million requests. So there is no way on earth my team could have handled 8 million requests from law enforcement, just for GPS alone. So the tool has just really caught on fire with law enforcement. They also love that it is extremely inexpensive to operate and easy, so, just the sheer volume of requests they anticipate us automating other features, and I just don’t know how we’ll handle the millions and millions of requests that are going to come in.

To be clear, that doesn’t mean they are giving law enforcement geolocation data on 8 million people. He’s talking about the wonderful automated backend Sprint runs for law enforcement, LSite, which allows investigators to rapidly retrieve information directly, without the burden of having to get a human being to respond to every specific request for data.  Rather, says Sprint, each of those 8 million requests represents a time when an FBI computer or agent pulled up a target’s location data using their portal or API. (I don’t think you can Tweet subpoenas yet.)  For an investigation whose targets are under ongoing realtime surveillance over a period of weeks or months, that could very well add up to hundreds or thousands of requests for a few individuals. So those 8 million data requests, according to a Sprint representative in the comments, actually “only” represent “several thousand” discrete cases.

As Kevin Bankston argues, that’s not entirely comforting. The Justice Department, Soghoian points out, is badly delinquent in reporting on its use of pen/trap orders, which are generally used to track communications routing information like phone numbers and IP addresses, but are likely to be increasingly used for location tracking. And recent changes in the law may have made it easier for intelligence agencies to turn cell phones into tracking devices.  In the criminal context, the legal process for getting geolocation information depends on a variety of things—different districts have come up with different standards, and it matters whether investigators want historical records about a subject or ongoing access to location info in real time. Some courts have ruled that a full-blown warrant is required in some circumstances, in other cases a “hybrid” order consisting of a pen/trap order and a 2703(d) order. But a passage from an Inspector General’s report suggests that the 2005 PATRIOT reauthorization may have made it easier to obtain location data:

After passage of the Reauthorization Act on March 9, 2006, combination orders became unnecessary for subscriber information and [REDACTED PHRASE]. Section 128 of the Reauthorization Act amended the FISA statute to authorize subscriber information to be provided in response to a pen register/trap and trace order. Therefore, combination orders for subscriber information were no longer necessary. In addition, OIPR determined that substantive amendments to the statute undermined the legal basis for which OIPR had received authorization [REDACTED PHRASE] from the FISA Court. Therefore, OIPR decided not to request [REDACTED PHRASE] pursuant to Section 215 until it re-briefed the issue for the FISA Court. As a result, in 2006 combination orders were submitted to the FISA Court only from January 1, 2006, through March 8, 2006.

The new statutory language permits FISA pen/traps to get more information than is allowed under a traditional criminal pen/trap, with a lower standard of review, including “any temporarily assigned network address or associated routing or transmission information.” Bear in mind that it would have made sense to rely on a 215 order only if the information sought was more extensive than what could be obtained using a National Security Letter, which requires no judicial approval. That makes it quite likely that it’s become legally easier to transform a cell phone into a tracking device even as providers are making it point-and-click simple to log into their servers and submit automated location queries.  So it’s become much more  urgent that the Justice Department start living up to its obligation to start telling us how often they’re using these souped-up pen/traps, and how many people are affected.  In congressional debates, pen/trap orders are invariably mischaracterized as minimally intrusive, providing little more than the list of times and phone numbers they produced 30 years ago.  If they’re turning into a plug-and-play solution for lojacking the population, Americans ought to know about it.

If you’re interested enough in this stuff to have made it through that discussion, incidentally, come check out our debate at Cato this afternoon, either in the flesh or via webcast. There will be a simultaneous “tweetchat” hosted by the folks at Get FISA Right.

Khalid Shaikh Mohammed on Trial

The Council on Foreign Relations’ Steven Simon makes a difficult case, and he makes it well, regarding the Justice Department’s decision to try Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in a civilian court in New York City. I agree with his bottom line:

no trial can provide closure for the traumas of that day. But a judgment in New York, where the greatest suffering was inflicted, will remind us both of the narrow viciousness of the terrorists’ cause and of the enduring strength of our own values.

I say again, this is not an easy case to make, and not just because of the emotions involved. Most people have already made up their mind that 1) KSM is undeserving of such treatment (the same could be said of most mass murderers); 2) that the risks posed to national security by a public trial (including the possibility of an acquittal and the potential disclosure of sensitive information) are not outweighed by the benefits; and 3) that AG Eric Holder made this decision in a haphazard manner, and for all the wrong reasons.

But I think that Simon renders a great service in making Holder’s argument, and, indeed, in making it better than the AG did.

My objectivity can be called into question: Steven has spoken at Cato a few times, and he was and is a participant in our ambitious counterterrorism project. I have enormous respect for his expertise on such matters.  

But I submit that anyone who reads Simon’s op-ed with an open mind must concede at least some of his points, and therefore further conclude that some of the criticisms of the decision are unfair. That does not mean that Simon will ultimately change a lot of minds. One might still conclude that, on balance, the DoJ’s decision was unwise, and that KSM should have been tried by a military tribunal, or merely detained forever. In truth, I was leaning in that direction before I read the piece.

But, on reflection, my confidence in our system of government and in the rule of law leads me to believe that Simon has it right. To the extent that KSM is given a forum for propagandizing on behalf of al Qaeda, the net effect of his rantings will be to remind the entire world that AQ is nothing more than a bunch of self-important, murderous SOBs who kill innocent people.

Nothing more, nothing less.

Who Reads the Readers?

This is a reminder, citizen: Only cranks worry about vastly increased governmental power to gather transactional data about Americans’ online behavior. Why, just last week, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) informed us that there has not been any “demonstrated or recent abuse” of such authority by means of National Security Letters, which permit the FBI to obtain many telecommunications records without court order. I mean, the last Inspector General report finding widespread and systemic abuse of those came out, like, over a year ago! And as defenders of expanded NSL powers often remind us, similar records can often be obtained by grand jury subpoena.

Subpoenas like, for instance, the one issued last year seeking the complete traffic logs of the left-wing site Indymedia for a particular day. According to tech journo Declan McCullah:

It instructed [System administrator Kristina] Clair to “include IP addresses, times, and any other identifying information,” including e-mail addresses, physical addresses, registered accounts, and Indymedia readers’ Social Security Numbers, bank account numbers, credit card numbers, and so on.

The sweeping request came with a gag order prohibiting Clair from talking about it. (As a constitutional matter, courts have found that recipients of such orders must at least be allowed to discuss them with attorneys in order to seek advise about their legality, but the subpoena contained no notice of that fact.) Justice Department officials tell McCullagh that the request was never reviewed directly by the Attorney General, as is normally required when information is sought from a press organization. Clair did tell attorneys at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and  when they wrote to U.S. Attorney Timothy Morrison questioning the propriety of the request, it was promptly withdrawn. EFF’s Kevin Bankston explains the legal problems with the subpoena at length.

Perhaps ironically, the targeting of Indymedia, which is about as far left as news sites get, may finally hep the populist right to the perils of the burgeoning surveillance state. It seems to have piqued Glenn Beck’s interest, and McCullagh went on Lou Dobbs’ show to talk about the story. Thus far, the approved conservative position appears to have been that Barack Obama is some kind of ruthless Stalinist with a secret plan to turn the United States into a massive gulag—but under no circumstances should there be any additional checks on his administration’s domestic spying powers.  This always struck me as both incoherent and a tragic waste of paranoia. Now that we’ve had a rather public reminder that such powers can be used to compile databases of people with politically unorthodox browsing habits, perhaps Beck—who seems to be something of an amateur historian—will take some time to delve into the story of COINTELPRO and other related projects our intelligence community busied itself with before we established an architecture of surveillance oversight in the late ’70s.

You know, the one we’ve spent the past eight years dismantling.

Fact-checking Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey

I appeared on the CNN program Lou Dobbs Tonight last Thursday (Oct. 22) to discuss the medical marijuana issue and the drug war in general.  There were two other guests: Peter Moskos from John Jay College and the organization Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) and Barry McCaffrey, retired General of the U.S. Army and former “Drug Czar” under President Bill Clinton.

I was really astonished by the doubletalk coming from McCaffrey.  Watch the clip below and then I’ll explain two of the worst examples so you can come to your own conclusions about this guy.

Doubletalk: Example One:

Tim Lynch: “Some states have changed their marijuana laws to allow patients who are suffering from cancer and AIDS–people who want to use marijuana for medical reasons–they’re exempt from the law. But there’s a clash between the laws of the state governments and the federal government. The federal government has come in and said, ‘We’re going to threaten people with federal prosecution, bring them into federal court.’ And what the [new memo from the Obama Justice Department] does this week is change federal policy. Basically, Attorney General Eric Holder is saying, ‘Look, for people, genuine patients–people suffering from cancer, people suffering from AIDS–these people are now off limits to federal prosecutors.’ It’s a very small step in the direction of reform.”

Now comes Barry McCaffrey: “There is zero truth to the fact that the Drug Enforcement Administration or any other federal law enforcement ever threatened care-givers or individual patients. That’s fantasy!”

Zero truth? Fantasy?  This report from USA Today tells the story of several patients who were harassed and threatened by federal agents. Excerpt:  ”In August 2002, federal agents seized six plants from [Diane] Monson’s home and destroyed them.”

This report from the San Francisco Chronicle tells the story of Bryan Epis and Ed Rosenthal.  Both men, in separate incidents, were raided, arrested, and prosecuted by federal officials.  The feds called them “drug dealers.”  When the cases came to trial, both men were eager to inform their juries about the actual circumstances surrounding their cases–but they were not allowed to convey those circumstances to jurors.  Federal prosecutors insisted that information concerning the medical aspect of marijuana was “irrelevant.”   Both men were convicted and jailed.

This report from the New York Times tells readers about the death of Peter McWilliams.  The feds said he was a “drug dealer.”  McWilliams also wanted to tell his story to a jury, but pled guilty when the judge told him he would not be allowed to inform the jury of his medical condition.  Excerpt:  “At his death, Mr. McWilliams was waiting to be sentenced in federal court after being convicted of having conspired to possess, manufacture and sell marijuana…. They pleaded guilty to the charge last year after United States District Judge George H. King ruled that they could not use California’s medical marijuana initiative, Proposition 215, as a defense, or even tell the jury of the initiative’s existence and their own medical conditions.”  The late William F. Buckley wrote about McWilliams’ case here.

Imagine what Diane Monson, Bryan Epis, Ed Rosenthal, and Peter McWilliams (and others) would have thought had they seen a former top official claim that federal officials never threatened patients or caregivers?!

Doubletalk: Example Two:

Tim Lynch: “After California changed its laws to allow the medical use of marijuana, [General Barry McCaffrey] was the Drug Czar at the time and he came in taking a very hard line. The Clinton administration’s position was that they were going to threaten doctors simply for discussing the pros and cons of using marijuana with their patients. That policy was fought over in the courts and [the Clinton/McCaffrey] policy was later declared illegal and unconstitutional for violating the free speech of doctors and for interfering with the doctor-patient relationship. This was the ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in a case called Conant – “C-O-N-A-N-T.”

Lou Dobbs: “The ruling stood in the Ninth Circuit?”

Tim Lynch: “Yes, it did.”

Now comes Barry McCaffrey: “That’s all nonsense!”

Nonsense?  Really?

Go here to read the New York Times story about McCaffrey’s hard-line policy.

The Conant ruling can be found here.  The name of the case was initially Conant v. McCaffrey, but as the months passed and the case worked its way up to the appeals court, the case was renamed Conant v. Walters because Bush entered the White House and he appointed his own drug czar, John Walters, who maintained the hard line policy initiated by Clinton and McCaffrey.

I should also mention that Conant was not an obscure case that McCaffrey could have somehow ”missed.”  Here’s a snippet from another New York Times report:  “The Supreme Court, in a silent rebuff on Tuesday to federal policy on medical marijuana, let stand an appeals court ruling that doctors may not be investigated, threatened or punished by federal regulators for recommending marijuana as a medical treatment for their patients.”  The point here is that the case was covered by major media as it unfolded.

When our television segment concluded, Lou Dobbs asked me some follow-up questions and asked me to supply additional info to one of his producers, which I was happy to do.

Whatever one’s view happens to be on drug policy, the historical record is there for any fair-minded person to see – and yet McCaffrey looked right into the camera and denied  past actions by himself and other federal agents.  And he didn’t say, “I think that’s wrong” or “I don’t remember it that way.”  He baldly asserted that my recounting of the facts was “nonsense.”   Now I suppose some will say that falsehoods are spoken on TV fairly often–maybe, I’m not sure–but it is distressing that this character held the posts that he did and that he continues to instruct cadets at West Point!

My fellow panelist, Peter Moskos, has a related blog post here and he had a good piece published in the Washington Post just yesterday.  For more Cato scholarship on drug policy, go here.

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Department of Bias

The Department of Justice just invalidated a move by the residents of Kinston, North Carolina, to have non-partisan local elections. Rationale?

The Justice Department’s ruling, which affects races for City Council and mayor, went so far as to say partisan elections are needed so that black voters can elect their “candidates of choice” - identified by the department as those who are Democrats and almost exclusively black.

The department ruled that white voters in Kinston will vote for blacks only if they are Democrats and that therefore the city cannot get rid of party affiliations for local elections because that would violate black voters’ right to elect the candidates they want.

This, coming from the same Department of Justice officials that wouldn’t know a civil rights violation if it picked up a club and barred them access to a polling place.