Tag: NSA

House Leadership Blocks Key Intelligence Reforms

The House GOP leadership’s hostility to reforming the U.S. Intelligence Community is on full display this week. The House Rules Committee (which is controlled by House Speaker John Boehner) blocked several key reform amendments to the annual Intelligence Authorization bill from even reaching the House floor for consideration.

Furious over an op-ed by Privacy and Civil Liberties Board chairman David Medine that called for an independent review of the executive branch’s “assassination-by-drone” policy, House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) included language in the annual Intelligence Authorization bill banning the PCLOB from examining the “covert” drone program. A bipartisan amendment (led by Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut) that would have struck that language was barred from consideration.

Last week, the House passed a bipartisan amendment to the annual Defense Department spending bill baring the federal government from using taxpayer dollars to search the stored communications of Americans collected by NSA. That same amendment would also prevent the federal government from mandating that American tech companies build encryption-defeating “back doors” into their products. The authors of that amendment, Democrat Zoe Lofgren of California and Republican Thomas Massie of Kentucky, wanted to make those provisions permanent, but their amendment was also blocked.

Snowdenversary Gifts for Privacy Advocates

Today marks the second anniversary of The Guardian’s first blockbuster story derived from files provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden—launching what would become an unprecedented deluge of disclosures about the scope and scale of communications surveillance by American intelligence agencies. So it seems appropriate that this week saw not only the passage of the USA Freedom Act, but also the approval in the House of several privacy-protective appropriations amendments, about which more momentarily.  Snowden himself takes a quick victory lap in a New York Times editorial reflecting on the consequences of his disclosures, (very much in line with his remarks during our interview at the inaugural Cato Surveillance Conference):

Privately, there were moments when I worried that we might have put our privileged lives at risk for nothing — that the public would react with indifference, or practiced cynicism, to the revelations.

Never have I been so grateful to have been so wrong.

Two years on, the difference is profound. In a single month, the N.S.A.’s invasive call-tracking program was declared unlawful by the courts and disowned by Congress. After a White House-appointed oversight board investigation found that this program had not stopped a single terrorist attack, even the president who once defended its propriety and criticized its disclosure has now ordered it terminated.

He’s referring here to last month’s appellate court ruling against the notorious telephone records dragnet, followed this week by passage of the USA Freedom Act.  That law should bar bulk collection not only under §215 of the Patriot Act, the basis of the phone program, but also under §214—the “pen register” provision previously used to vacuum up international Internet metadata—and National Security Letters, which can be issued by senior FBI officials without judicial approval.  Since the latter two authorities are permanent, they would not have been affected by what quite a few lazy reporters described as “the expiration of the Patriot Act,” though in fact only about 2 percent of the law’s provisions were actually due to sunset.  While the law is far from ideal, incidentally, I think it does constitute more robust reform than many libertarians fear, for reasons I lay out in this piece at Motherboard and this blog post at Just Security.  It will, of course, be necessary to vigilantly watch for efforts to water down the law’s protection—something the public is finally at least somewhat empowered to do by a transparency provision requiring significant legal interpretations by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to be published in unclassfied form.

Second Circuit Declares NSA’s Telephone Dragnet Unlawful

In a ruling certain to profoundly shape the ongoing debate over surveillance reform in Congress, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit today held that the National Security Agency’s indiscriminate collection of Americans’ telephone calling records exceeds the legal authority granted by the Patriot Act’s controversial section 215, which is set to expire at the end of this month.  Legislation to reform and constrain that authority, the USA Freedom Act, has drawn broad bipartisan support, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has stubbornly pressed ahead with a bill to reauthorize §215 without any changes.  But the Second Circuit ruling gives even defenders of the NSA program powerful reasons to support reform.

McConnell and other reform opponents have consistently insisted, in defiance of overwhelming evidence, that the NSA program is an essential tool in the fight against terrorism, and that any reform would hinder efforts to keep Americans safe—a claim rejected even by the leaders of the intelligence community. (Talk about being more Catholic than the Pope!)  Now, however, a federal appellate court has clearly said that no amount of contortion can stretch the language of §215 into a justification for NSA’s massive database—which means it’s no longer clear that a simple reauthorization would preserve the program. Ironically, if McConnell is determined to salvage some version of this ineffective program, his best hope may now be… the USA Freedom Act!

The Freedom Act would, in line with the Second Circuit opinion, bar the use of §215 and related authorities to indiscriminately collect records in bulk, requiring that a “specific selection term,” like a phone number, be used to identify the records sought by the government.  It also, however, creates a separate streamlined process that would allow call records databases already retained by telephone companies to be rapidly searched and cross-referenced, allowing NSA to more quickly obtain the specific information it seeks about terror suspects and their associates without placing everyone’s phone records in the government’s hands.  If the Second Circuit’s ruling is upheld, NSA will likely have to cease bulk collection even if Congress does reauthorize §215.  That makes passage of the Freedom Act the best way to guarantee preservation of the rapid search capability McConnell seems to think is so important—though, of course, the government will retain the ability to obtain specific phone records (albeit less quickly) under either scenario.  With this ruling, in short, the arguments against reform have gone from feeble to completely unsustainable.

In Holding NSA Spying Illegal, the Second Circuit Treats Data as Property

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has ruled that section 215 of the USA-PATRIOT Act never authorized the National Security Agency’s collection of all Americans’ phone calling records. It’s pleasing to see the opinion parallel arguments that Randy Barnett and I put forward over the last couple of years.

Two points from different parts of the opinion can help structure our thinking about constitutional protection for communications data and other digital information. Data is property, which can be unconstitutionally seized.

As cases like this often do, the decision spends much time on niceties like standing to sue. In that discussion—finding that the ACLU indeed has legal standing to challenge government collection of its calling data—the court parried the government’s argument that the ACLU suffers no offense until its data is searched.

“The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures,” the court emphasized. Data is a thing that can be owned, and when the government takes someone’s data, it is seized.

In this situation, the data is owned jointly by telecommunications companies and their customers. The companies hold it subject to obligations they owe their customers limiting what they can do with it. Think of covenants that run with land. These covenants run with data for the benefit of the customer.

Mass Surveillance: From the War on Drugs to the War on Terror

At first glance, the USA Today headline seemed like many others in the nearly two years since Edward Snowden’s explosive revelations: U.S. secretly tracked billions of calls for decades. And while the program essentials were the same—the secret collection of the telephone metadata of every American– there were two key differences between this story and the hundreds before it on this topic. The offending government entity was the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the warrantless surveillance program was launched during the first Bush administration.

Justice Department officials told Reuters that, “All of the information has been deleted.”  “The agency is no longer collecting bulk telephony metadata from U.S. service providers.” However, DoJ provided no actual proof of the alleged data destruction, and the DoJ Inspector General only recently began an inquiry into the program. While it now seems fairly clear that the DEA’s “USTO” metadata collection program served as a model for the NSA telephony metadata program conducted under Sec. 215 of the PATRIOT Act, what is also clear is that Americans are now confronting a government surveillance apparatus that is truly vast. As Ryan Gallagher of The Intercept noted, this particular DEA mass surveillance program is just one of several undertaken by the agency over the past three decades.

How many other such programs exist at other federal agencies, whether inside or outside of the U.S. intelligence community? And how far back do such programs go? How many members of Congress knew, and for how long? Was this DEA program concealed from the agency’s inspector general for two decades, or did the IG simply fail to investigate the program year after year out of apathy or indifference?

If the past is any guide at all—and the surveillance scandals of the 1960s and 1970s are a very good guide—we are once again confronting a level of government over-reach that calls for a comprehensive, public accounting.

In is new book, Democracy in the Dark, former Church Committee chief counsel Fritz Schwartz notes that “…too much is kept secret not to protect America but to keep illegal or embarrassing conduct from Americans…the Church Committee also found that every president from Franklin Roosevelt to Richard Nixon had secretly abused their powers.” For the paperback edition of his book, Schwartz is going to have to add more American chief executives to his list.

June’s Cato Unbound: The Snowden Files, One Year Later

This month at Cato Unbound, we’re discussing Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations.

We mostly know the story, but it bears repeating: One year ago this week, Glenn Greenwald wrote a news story that would change the world forever. In it, we learned that the National Security Agency had been secretly collecting enormous amounts of telephone metadata on what were presumably ordinary American citizens. The agency had done so without a warrant and without suspicion of any indiviudal person. The revelation changed forever how Americans think about national security, privacy, and civil liberties in the digital age.

More revelations soon followed. Among many others, these included NSA surveillance of web activitymobile phone location data, and the content of email and text messages. The NSA also conducted many highly embarrassing acts of surveillance against allied or benign world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the conclave that recently elected Pope FrancisIt had subverted commonly used encryption systems. It had co-opted numerous tech companies in its plans. Its leaders had repeatedly lied to, or at the very least misled, the U.S. Congress

How far should surveillance go? What has been the value of the information gained? What have we given up in the process? What are the risks, should malign actors ever get their hands on the controls of the system?

We are able to ask these questions today because of one individual: Edward Snowden, a systems administrator for the NSA who chose to make public the information to which he had access. We have no choice now but to debate it. That’s simply what democracies do whenever such momentous information becomes public.

Joining us at Cato Unbound this month are four individuals with extensive knowledge in the fields of national security and civil liberties: Cato Senior Fellow Julian Sanchez, Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Benjamin Wittes, Georgetown University Professor Carrie F. Cordero, and independent journalist Marcy Wheeler. Each brings a somewhat different perspective on the matters at hand, and we welcome them all to what is sure to be a vigorous debate.

The FBI versus the Citizens

This Thursday at Cato, we’re hosting an event for a remarkable new book: Betty Medsger’s The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI (RSVP here). As I explain in the Washington Examiner today, it’s a story as riveting as any heist film, and far more significant:  

Forty-three years ago last Saturday, an unlikely band of antiwar activists calling themselves “The Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI” broke into a Bureau branch office in Media, Pennsylvania, making off with reams of classified documents. Despite a manhunt involving 200 agents at its peak, the burglars were never caught, but the files they mailed to selected journalists proved that the agency was waging a secret, unconstitutional war against American citizens.  

As a young Washington Post reporter, Medsger was the first to receive and publish selections from the files—over the protests of then-attorney general (and later Watergate felon) John Mitchell, who called the Post three times falsely claiming that publication would jeopardize national security and threaten agents’ lives. 

Four decades later, those claims echo in former NSA head Michael Hayden’s assertion that the US is “infinitely weaker” because of Snowden’s leaks. Like the apocryphal old saw suggests, if history doesn’t repeat itself, at least it rhymes.

“As if arranged by the gods of irony,” Medsger writes, the very morning Hoover learned of the break-in, then-assistant attorney general William H. Rehnquist (later Chief Justice), in testimony the FBI had helped prepare, told a Senate subcommittee that what little surveillance the government engaged in did not have a “chilling effect” on constitutional rights. Among the first documents Medsger reported weeks later, was a memo urging agents to “enhance the paranoia… get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.”

Ironies abound. The burglars timed the heist for March 8, 1971, when the country would be distracted by the “Fight of the Century” between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Medsger notes the “poetic justice” that the much-spied upon Ali would unwittingly help provide cover for exposure of FBI spying. Oddly, it’s acting attorney general Robert Bork–survivor of the “Saturday Night Massacre” and nobody’s idea of a civil libertarian)–who orders the release of key documents on the COINTELPRO program and urged the incoming attorney general to investigate the program. There’s another vignette where President Nixon speaks to an FBI Academy graduating class about “reestablishing respect for the law”–and the next evening orders Haldeman to have someone break into the Brookings Institution and steal a purloined copy of the Pentagon Papers (a zealous Chuck Colson suggested firebombing the think tank to create a distraction).  

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