Tag: Patriot Act

And Then There Were None

The Washington Post, December 21, 2005:

The four Republican rebels – Larry E. Craig (Idaho), Chuck Hagel (Neb.), John E. Sununu (N.H.) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) – have joined all but two Senate Democrats in arguing that more civil liberties safeguards need to be added to the proposed renewal of the Patriot Act.

Let’s hope that some of the prospective new senators who consider themselves constitutionalists will raise their voices on issues like this.

A Response to Intel Abuses at Last?

As I explain in yesterday’s BloggingHeads dialogue with Eli Lake, I’m chary of relying too much on legislative “sunset” provisions to check abuse of power, especially in the shadowy world of intelligence. (For the fleshed-out version of the argument, see Chris Mooney’s 2004 piece in Legal Affairs.) After all, in January, the Office of the Inspector General had released an absolutely damning report showing that for years, FBI agents systematically manipulated their incredibly broad National Security Letter authorities to get information about Americans telephone usage without following any legitimate legal process at all. To cover those abuses, officials compounded their crimes by lying to federal courts and refusing to use an auditable computer system for their information requests.  The report was released amid debate over what reforms should be included in the reauthorization of several controversial Patriot Act provisions, with proposed changes to the NSL statutes front and center—not least because several courts had found constitutional problems with the gag orders accompanying NSLs. Yet just a month later, Congress consented to an extension of those Patriot provisions without implementing any of the various rather mild changes that had won approval in the House or Senate Judiciary Committees. If a sunset-inspired review didn’t yield any real consequences then, I thought, what would it take?

Today, however, I see a there are glimmers of interest in something more closely resembling serious oversight. In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, sent last month but released yesterday, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-VT) urges DOJ to implement many of the reforms in the SJC’s bill voluntarily—above all procedures to guarantee a detailed record of the grounds on which various types of information sought, and to govern the retention, use, and distribution of information obtained. Leahy also signals his intent to ask department watchdogs to conduct audits of the use of Patriot authorities, as the Senate’s bill had stipulated. These are all, needless to say, good ideas—provided we don’t accept voluntary and mutable internal guidelines as a substitute for statutory limits with teeth.

Meanwhile, Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) is holding Wednesday morning hearings on the abuses detailed in the Inspector General’s report. FBI General Counsel Valerie Caproni and IG Glenn Fine are slated to testify. (There are links to their prepared testimony already, though the documents themselves aren’t there yet as I write.) Extrapolating from past performances, I predict Caproni will allow that the abuses described were Very Serious Indeed (though, really, perhaps not quite as serious as all that…) but all cleaned up now. Nobody should be satisfied with this, and if Fine doesn’t broach the subject himself, somebody really ought to ask Caproni about some minimization procedures for the 25,000–50,000 National Security Letters the department issues annually. As Fine noted in recent testimony, the Bureau has been promising this for years now:

In August 2007, the NSL Working Group sent the Attorney General its report and proposed minimization procedures. However, we had several concerns with the findings and recommendations of the Working Group’s report, which we discussed in our March 2008 NSL report. In particular, we disagreed with the Working Group about the sufficiency of existing privacy safeguards and measures for minimizing the retention of NSL-derived information. We disagreed because the controls the Working Group cited as providing safeguards predated our NSL reviews, yet we found serious abuses of the NSL authorities.

As a result, the Acting Privacy Officer decided to reconsider the recommendations and withdrew them. The Working Group has subsequently developed new recommendations for NSL minimization procedures, which are still being considered within the Department and have not yet been issued. We believe that the Department should promptly consider the Working Group’s proposal and issue final minimization procedures for NSLs that address the collection of information through NSLs, how the FBI can upload NSL information in FBI databases, the dissemination of NSL information, the appropriate tagging and tracking of NSL derived information in FBI databases and files, and the time period for retention of NSL obtained information. At this point, more than 2 years have elapsed since after our first report was issued, and final guidance is needed and overdue.

Way, way overdue—much like some kind of serious congressional response to the Bureau’s NSL Calvinball.

A Post-Health Care Realignment?

From Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal to Joe Biden’s Big F-ing Deal, progressives have led a consistent and largely successful campaign to expand the size and scope of the federal government. Now, Matt Yglesias suggests, it’s time to take a victory lap and call it a day:

For the past 65-70 years—and especially for the past 30 years since the end of the civil rights argument—American politics has been dominated by controversy over the size and scope of the welfare state. Today, that argument is largely over with liberals having largely won. […] The crux of the matter is that progressive efforts to expand the size of the welfare state are basically done. There are big items still on the progressive agenda. But they don’t really involve substantial new expenditures. Instead, you’re looking at carbon pricing, financial regulatory reform, and immigration reform as the medium-term agenda. Most broadly, questions about how to boost growth, how to deliver public services effectively, and about the appropriate balance of social investment between children and the elderly will take center stage. This will probably lead to some realigning of political coalitions. Liberal proponents of reduced trade barriers and increased immigration flows will likely feel emboldened about pushing that agenda, since the policy environment is getting substantially more redistributive and does much more to mitigate risk. Advocates of things like more and better preschooling are going to find themselves competing for funds primarily with the claims made by seniors.

I’d like to believe this is true, though I can’t say I’m persuaded. It seems at least as likely that, consistent with the historical pattern, the new status quo will simply be redefined as the “center,” and proposals to further augment the welfare state will move from the fringe to the mainstream of opinion on the left.

That said, it’s hardly unheard of for a political victory to yield the kind of medium-term realignment Yglesias is talking about. The end of the Cold War destabilized the Reagan-era conservative coalition by essentially taking off the table a central—and in some cases the only—point of agreement among diverse interest groups. Less dramatically, the passage of welfare reform in the 90s substantially reduced the political salience of welfare policy. The experience of countries like Canada and the United Kingdom, moreover, suggests that if Obamacare isn’t substantially rolled back fairly soon, it’s likely to become a political “given” that both parties take for granted. Libertarians, of course, have long lamented this political dynamic: Government programs create constituencies, and become extraordinarily difficult to cut or eliminate, even if they were highly controversial at their inceptions.

We don’t have to be happy about this pattern, but it is worth thinking about how it might alter the political landscape a few years down the line.  One possibility, as I suggest above, is that it will just shift the mainstream of political discourse to the left. But as libertarians have also long been at pains to point out, the left-right model of politics, with its roots in the seating protocols of the 18th century French assembly, conceals the multidimensional complexity of politics. There’s no intrinsic commonality between, say, “left” positions on taxation, foreign policy, and reproductive rights—the label here doesn’t reflect an underlying ideological coherence so much as the contingent requirements of assembling a viable political coalition at a particular time and place.  If an issue that many members of one coalition considered especially morally urgent is, practically speaking, taken off the table, the shape of the coalitions going forward depends largely on the issues that rise to salience. Libertarians are perhaps especially conscious of this precisely because we tend to take turns being more disgusted with one or another party—usually whichever holds power at a given moment.

The $64,000 question, of course, is what comes next. As 9/11 and the War on Terror reminded us, the central political issues of an era are often dictated by fundamentally unpredictable events. But some of the obvious current candidates are notable for the way they cut across the current partisan divide. In my own wheelhouse—privacy and surveillance issues—Republicans have lately been univocal in their support of expanded powers for the intelligence community, with plenty of help from hawkish Democrats. Given their fondness for invoking the specter of soviet totalitarian states, I’ve hoped that the folks mobilizing under the banner of the Tea Party might begin pushing back on the burgeoning surveillance state. Thus far I’ve hoped in vain, but if that coalition outlasts our current disputes, one can imagine it becoming an issue for them in 2011 as parts of the Patriot Act once again come up for reauthorization, or in 2012 when the FISA Amendments Act is due to sunset. In the past, the same issues have made strange bedfellows of the ACLU and the ACU, of Ron Paul Republicans and FireDogLake Democrats.  Obama has pledged to take up comprehensive immigration reform during his term, and there too significant constituencies within each party fall on opposite sides of the issue.

Further out than that it’s hard to predict. But more generally, the possibility that I find interesting is that—against a background of technologies that have radically reduced the barriers to rapid, fluid, and distributed group formation and mobilization—the protracted health care fight, the economic crisis, and the explosion of federal spending have created an array of potent political communities outside the party-centered coalitions. They’ve already shown they’re capable of surprising alliances—think Jane Hamsher and Grover Norquist.  Suppose Yglesias is at least this far correct: The next set of political battles are likely to be fought along a different value dimension than was health care reform. Precisely because these groups formed outside the party-centered coalitions, and assuming they outlast the controversies that catalyzed their creation, it’s hard to predict which way they’ll move on tomorrow’s controversies. It’s entirely possible that there are latent and dispersed constituencies for policy change outside the bipartisan mainstream who have now, crucially, been connected: Any overlap on orthogonal value dimensions within or between the new groups won’t necessarily be evident until the relevant values are triggered by a high-visibility policy debate.  Still, it’s reason to expect that the next decade of American politics may be even more turbulent and surprising than the last one.

Who I’m Not Voting For

It’s that time of year again, when friends start telling me about this or that candidate I should support because he or she is a dedicated defender of liberty and limited government. I’m a political junkie, so I love getting these recommendations. But I don’t end up supporting or contributing to many candidates. In my view, it’s not enough for a candidate to say that he’s ”committed to slashing wasteful spending, providing tax relief, and eliminating red tape.” What’s your actual tax plan? What spending do you propose to cut or eliminate? Not many of them offer clear answers to that.

And liberty involves more than just economics. Often I’m told, “Congressman X is a libertarian.” I always check, and then I say, “He voted for the war, the Patriot Act, and the Federal Marriage Amendment. Sounds like a conservative.” Now a conservative who opposed President George W. Bush’s trillion-dollar spending increase, his Medicare expansion, and his stepped-up federal involvement in education is a lot better than your average member of Congress. But those votes do not a libertarian make.

This year I’m looking for candidates who stand for freedom across the board, who want government constrained by the Constitution, who believe in the principles of individual liberty, limited government, free markets, and peace.

And that means I don’t want to back candidates who support

  • the war in Iraq
  • the war in Afghanistan
  • war with Iran
  • the war on drugs
  • the constitutional amendment to override state marriage laws and make gay people second-class citizens
  • the president’s power to snatch American citizens off the street and hold them without access to a lawyer or a judge
  • new restrictions on immigration

So don’t everybody write at once. But I’ll be looking out for political candidates who support liberty and limited government across a wide range of issues.

The Census Meets the Patriot Act

The Washington Post reports that the Justice Department recently sent out a letter to the chairs of the Asian Pacific, black, and Hispanic caucuses in Congress, reassuring them that the Patriot Act’s expansion of information-gathering powers, including the controversial Section 215, does not override federal statutes guaranteeing the confidentiality of census data.  DOJ’s view, according to Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich, is that “if Congress intended to override these protections, it would say so clearly and explicitly.”

Section 215, recall, is colloquially referred to as the “business records” provision of Patriot, though in fact it permits investigators to obtain “any tangible thing” from a designated person or entity by obtaining an order from the secret FISA court, subject only to a showing that the records sought are “relevant” to a national security investigation. As Weich observes, §215 does not contain the “notwithstanding any other law” language present in other parts of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which means that it cannot be presumed on face to override other federal privacy statues establishing a higher degree of protection for specific categories of sensitive records. 

What’s interesting to me, however, is that a similar issue arose several years ago, not with respect to the census confidentiality statute, but rather the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (aka FERPA, aka the Buckley Amendment). Initially, DOJ attorneys similarly opted not to seek education records under §215 on the grounds that the FISA court might conclude FERPA trumped Patriot in the absence of language giving §215 explicit priority, as the Office of the Inspector General’s initial report on the use of §215 explains. Nevertheless, the Counsel for Intelligence Policy told OIG that his office “would have been willing to present an application to the FISA court for educational records if the FBI considered the information important enough and wanted to press the issue with the FISA Court.” 

Subsequent amendments to the statute alleviated those concerns:

According to [National Secrity Law Branch] and [Office of Intelligence Policy and Review] attorneys, this legal impediment to obtaining educational records has been addressed.  Section 106(a)(2) of the Reauthorization Act amended FISA by ading 50 U.S.C. §1861(a)(3), which specifically addresses educational, medical, tax and other sensitive categories of business records.  The amendment provided that when the FBI is requesting such items, the request must be personally approved by the FBI Director, the FBI Deputy Director, or the Executive Assistant Director for National Security. According to several NSLB and OPPR attorneys we interviewed, because this provision clarifies that educational records are obtainable through the use of a Section 215 order, the non-disclosure provisions of Section 215 apply rather than the notification provisions of the Buckley Amendment.

Census records, of course, are not mentioned, and the statutory language protecting those records from legal process is unusually strong and unqualified. On the other hand, neither does the amended language explicitly override the federal statutes protecting the specified categories of records. Rather, it adds a layer of oversight for several types of requests that are implied to fall within the scope of §215. Indeed, at the time, this portion of the Reauthorization Act was publicly portrayed as increasing protections for sensitive records.

That, at any rate, was the spin the Congressional Research Service gave it. Based on OIG’s account, it sounds as though a reform that had been painted as a concession to civil libertarians actually allowed the acquisition of those sensitive records for the first time, since they’d previously been regarded as off-limits by statute. So I suppose we should be glad they didn’t decide to simultaneously “enhance” the safeguards on census records.

Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily impossible for those records to ever be obtained via a §215 order. As Weich’s letter clearly says, the Census Act prohibits “the Commerce Secretary and other covered individuals from disclosing protected census information.” But as the Supreme Court clarified in St. Regis Paper v. United States, that confidentiality requirement is only binding on specific covered individuals.  If the government is able to get its hands on a copy of a census record by serving some non-covered individual, the record itself is not off limits.

Since I know approximately nothing about the fine points of record handling protocol within the Census Bureau, I can’t really say how much of a practical difference that makes. Still, given that we’ve seen statutory records protections effectively stripped away under the guise of enhancing those protections, I think it’s reasonable to infer that census records will be considered fair game under §215 if they can be obtained from a source other than the designated officials.

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.

The Least Obama Could Do for Civil Liberties

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has just fired off a letter to Barack Obama urging him to finally appoint some members to the long-vacant Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, echoing a similar recent request from a coalition of civil liberties groups.

I don’t think anyone should make excuses for Obama’s appalling about-face on Patriot Act reform, but at least in that case there’s a real, difficult, and complex policy debate that needs to play out in a preoccupied Congress for anything to happen. But there is no reason whatever that seats on this board should sit vacant a year into this presidency. Congress agreed to create the independent board—after a predecessor within the White House was deemed to lack sufficient independence—back in 2007. There’s agreement that the board is needed; the president just needs to pick people to sit on it. Yet there are precious few signs he’s even conducting a serious search. After a long series of decisions that have appalled civil libertarians, staffing the watchdog group Congress created three years ago is, quite literally, the absolute least Obama could do to begin living up to his campaign rhetoric.