Tag: section 215

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.

Wyden Pressing Intel Officials on Domestic Location Tracking

Back in May, during the debates over reauthorization of the Patriot Act, Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Mark Udall (D-CO) began raising a fuss about a secret interpretation of the law’s so-called “business records” authority, known to wonks as Section 215, arguing that intelligence agencies had twisted the statute to give themselves domestic surveillance powers Congress had not anticipated or intended. At the time, I marshaled a fair amount of circumstantial evidence that, I thought, suggested that the “secret authority” involved location tracking of cell phones. Wyden backed off after being promised a secret hearing to address his concerns—but indicated he’d be returning to the issue if he remained unsatisfied. The hearing occurred early last month. Now I suspect we’re seeing the other shoe dropping.

At a confirmation hearing this morning for Matthew Olsen, who’s been tapped to head the National Counterterrorism Center, Wyden repeatedly asked the nominee whether the intelligence community “use[s] cell site data to track the location of Americans inside the country.” This comes on the heels of a letter Wyden and Udall sent to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper demanding an answer to the same question. Olsen was unsurprisingly vague, calling it a “complicated question” but allowing that there were “certain circumstances where that authority may exist.” The committee was promised a memo explaining those “circumstances” by September. That means that just about ten years after Congress approved the Patriot Act, a handful of legislators may get the privilege of learning what it does. Ah, democracy.

On a related note, one of the data points I cited in my previous post was that Wyden’s Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act had, somewhat unusually, been structured primarily as a reform to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which governs intelligence spying, only later incorporating the same protections into the statutes governing ordinary criminal investigations. Especially striking was the inclusion of a specific prohibition on the use of Section 215 for location tracking, above and beyond the general warrant requirement. Since that writing, however, the bill gained Republican co-sponsorship, and dropped the changes to FISA that had previously been the bill’s centerpiece. Instead, the bill now contains an explicit exception for FISA “electronic surveillance,” in addition to the section providing for location tracking authorized by either a criminal or a FISA warrant. I’m not privy to whatever negotiations necessitated that change, but it’s hard to imagine anyone would have insisted on such a substantial restructuring if the intelligence community weren’t doing at least some location tracking pursuant to a lower standard than probable cause.

It’s not entirely clear exactly what the current version of the bill would permit, however. FISA is mentioned twice in the draft: once as part of a vague general exemption for “electronic surveillance,” and then again as one of the sources of authority for a “warrant” to do geolocation tracking. At a first pass, though, those two definitions ought to overlap, because FISA requires a secret intelligence court to issue a warrant based on probable cause (to believe the target is an “agent of a foreign power”) for government monitoring that falls within the FISA’s definition of “electronic surveillance,” in contrast with the far laxer standards that apply to the use of Section 215. It’s therefore an interesting puzzle what, exactly, that exception is meant to permit. Possibly the idea is to permit the (otherwise prohibited) “use” and “disclosure” of geolocation information already obtained without a warrant in order to target future judicially authorized “electronic surveillance,” but it’s hard to be sure. What does seem increasingly sure, however, is that location tracking is connected to the controversy over Section 215—and that Congress owes the American people a debate over the proper use and scope of that power, which it has thus far refused to have.

No Time to Debate Patriot

Back in February, Democratic leader Harry Reid promised fellow senator Rand Paul that—after years of kicking the can down the road—there would be at least a week reserved for full and open debate over three controversial provisions of the Patriot Act slated to expire this weekend, with an opportunity to propose reforms and offer amendments to any reauthorization bill.  And since, as we know, politicians always keep their promises, we can look forward to a robust and enlightening discussion of how to modify the Patriot Act to better safeguard civil liberties without sacrificing our counterterror capabilities.

Ha! No, I’m joking, of course. Having already cut the legs out from under his own party’s reformers by making a deal with GOP leaders for a four-year extension without reform, Reid used some clever procedural maneuvering to circumvent Rand Paul’s pledged obstruction, slipping the Patriot extension into an unrelated small-business bill that’s privileged against filibusters. All this just to prevent any debate on amendments—the most prominent of which, the Leahy-Paul amendment, is frankly so mild that it ought to be uncontroversial. (Among other things, it modifies some portions of the statute already found constitutionally defective by the courts, and codifies some recordkeeping and data use guidelines the Justice Department has already agreed to implement voluntarily.) Apparently it’s too much to even allow these proposals to be debated and voted on.

One reason may be that a growing number of senators—most recently Ron Wyden and Mark Udall—have been raising concerns about a classified “sensitive collection program” that makes use of the sunsetting “business records provision,” also known as Section 215.  They’ve joined Dick Durbin and (former Senator) Russ Feingold in hinting that there may be abuses linked to this program the public is unaware of, and that, moreover, the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has interpreted this provision (in a classified ruling, of course) in a way that the general public would find surprising, and which goes beyond the law’s apparent intent. Intelligence operations, of course, must remain secret, but this means we are now governed by a body of secret law, potentially at odds with citizens’ understanding of the public statute—with the result that we cannot even know the true reason that common sense reforms, once endorsed unanimously by the Senate Judiciary Committee, cannot be adopted. This is—to put it very mildly—not how a democracy is supposed to function. Equally troubling, there’s strong circumstantial evidence (which I’ll outline in a separate post) that the program in question may involve large-scale cell phone location tracking and data mining—a conclusion shared by several other analysts who’ve followed the issue closely.

The one silver lining here is that, while press may not have the patience for a complicated policy debate involving byzantine intelligence law—especially now that many Democrats have decided that powers which raised the specter of tyranny under George W. Bush are unobjectionable under an Obama administration—they are always happy to cover a legislative boxing match. Perhaps, thanks to Sen. Paul’s intransigence, we’ll finally see a little sunlight shed on these potent and secret surveillance powers.

Patriot Reauthorization Vote Fails… Now What?

First, the good news: Last night, civil libertarians had a rare excuse to pop champagne when an effort to fast-track a one-year reauthorization of three controversial Patriot Act provisions–set to expire at the end of the month–failed in the House of Representatives. As Slate’s Dave Weigel notes, the vote had been seen as such a sure thing that Politico headlined its story on the pending vote “Congress set to pass Patriot Act extension.” Around this time last year, a similar extension won House approval by a lopsided 315-97 vote.

Now the reality check: The large majority of representatives also voted for reauthorization last night: 277 for, 148 against. The vote failed only because GOP leadership had sought to ram the bill through under a “suspension of the rules”–a streamlined process generally used for the most uncontroversial bills, limiting debate and barring the introduction of amendments–which required a two-thirds majority for passage. Given last week’s developments in the Senate, it’s still a near certainty that the expiring provisions will be extended again before the end of the month. In fact, there’s a Rules Committee meeting today to get the bill back on the House floor. Also, while the defection of 26 Republicans who voted against reauthorization is the first real pushback against leadership we’ve seen since the GOP took the House, some of the talk that’s circulated about a Tea Party backlash against the surveillance state seems premature. As Weigel notes, just eight of the 26 Republican “no” votes were incoming freshmen, and many representatives prominently associated with the Tea Party were on the other side. Some of the resistance seems to have been generated by the fast-track approach, as there haven’t been any hearings or mark-ups on Patriot legislation.

That said, the tide does seem to be shifting somewhat. The failure of the fast-track vote means that we may see the reauthorization introduced under rules that would allow amendments aimed at remedying the civil liberties problems with the three expiring provisions, or with the still more controversial Patriot expansion of National Security Letter authority, which under current law does not expire. For those just tuning in, the sunsetting Patriot provisions are:

Lone Wolf

So-called “lone wolf” authority allows non-citizens in the U.S. who are suspected of involvement in terrorist activities to be monitored under the broad powers afforded by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), even if they are not connected to any overseas terror group or other “foreign power.” It was passed after FBI claimed the absence of “lone wolf” authority stymied efforts to monitor the infamous “20th 9/11 Hijacker”–but a bipartisan Senate report found that this failure was actually the result of a series of gross errors by the FBI, not any gap in government surveillance powers. Moreover, Lone Wolf blurs the traditional–and constitutionally significant–distinction between foreign intelligence, where the executive enjoys greater latitude, and domestic national security investigations. The way the statute is written, Lone Wolf authority is only available in circumstances where investigators would already be able to obtain a criminal terrorism wiretap. Given of the sweeping nature of FISA surveillance, that more narrow criminal surveillance authority should be employed when the special needs imposed by the involvement of a “foreign power” are not present.

Roving Wiretaps

Roving wiretap authority allows intelligence wiretap orders to follow a target across multiple phone lines or online accounts. Similar authority has been available in criminal investigations since 1986, but Patriot’s roving wiretaps differ from the version available in criminal cases, because the target of an order may be “described” rather than identified. Courts have stressed this requirement for identification of a named target as a feature that enables criminal roving wiretaps to satisfy the “particularity” requirement of the Fourth Amendment. Patriot’s roving taps, by contrast, raise the possibility of “John Doe” warrants that name neither a person nor a specific “place” or facility–disturbingly similar to the “general warrants” the Founders were concerned to prohibit when they crafted the Fourth Amendment. Given the general breadth of FISA surveillance and the broad potential scope of online investigations, John Doe warrants would pose a high risk of “overcollecting” innocent Americans’ communications. Most civil liberties advocates would be fine with making this authority permanent if it were simply modified to match the criminal authority and foreclose the possibility of “John Doe” warrants by requiring either a named individual target or a list of specific facilities to be wiretapped.

Section 215

Section 215 expanded the authority of the FISA Court to compel the production of business records or any other “tangible thing.” While previously such orders were limited to narrow classes of businesses and records, and required a showing of “specific and articulable facts” that the records sought pertain to an agent of a foreign power, Patriot stripped away those limits. The current law requires only a showing of “reasonable grounds” to believe records are “relevant” to an investigation, not probable cause, and has no requirement that people whose information is obtained be even suspected of any connection to terrorism. And the recipients of these orders are barred from Proposals to restore some of the previous checks on this power–requiring some demonstrable connection to terroris–initially received bipartisan support last year, but were torpedoed when the Justice Department objected that this limitation would interfere with a secret “sensitive collection program.” Several senators briefed on the program have expressed concern that this sweeping collection authority was being reauthorized without adequate public understanding of its true purpose.

So those are the sunsetting provisions–though a lot of the debate last year very justifiably centered on the need to reform National Security Letters, which we know to be constitutionally defective, and which have already been subject to serious abuses. One reason reform keeps getting postponed is that Congress is busy and tends not to make time for these issues until the sunset deadlines are right around the corner–at which point a reliable band of pundits and legislators imply that absolute bedlam will ensue unless every single surveillance authority is extended–meaning reform will have to wait until later, at which point it will be an emergency all over again. Once you start looking at the numbers, though, all these Chicken Littles begin to look faintly ridiculous.

The Lone Wolf provision is such an essential intelligence tool that it has never been used. Not a single time. And again, by the terms of the statute, it only applies under circumstances where a criminal wiretap warrant would already be available if Lone Wolf authority didn’t exist. Roving authority is granted by the FISA Court an average of 22 times per year, and in many (if not most) of those cases it never actually has to be used–surveillance is limited to named facilities. To put that in context, the FISA court issued 1,320 electronic surveillance orders in 2009, and that was the first time in 5 years the number fell below 2,000. So we’re talking about maybe 1 percent of FISA surveillance, which judging by internal oversight reports, is a good deal less than the portion that ends up sitting untranslated for months anyway. Similarly, there were 21 business records orders under §215 issued in 2009–and remember, that authority doesn’t disappear if this provision sunsets, it just reverts to its narrower, pre–Patriot version, where the court needs to see actual evidence that the records have some connection to a suspected terrorist. Surveys by the Inspector General’s office found no instances in which a major case development resulted from 215 information. The idea that we’d somehow be in grave danger if these provisions lapsed for a few months just doesn’t hold up, but there’s no reason Congress can’t pass a two-month extension while they consider some of the reforms already on the table, just as they did last year.

So let’s stop living in a state of perpetual panic. Some of these provisions we’d be better off without. Some, like roving wiretaps, just need minor tweaks to close loopholes for misuse. Some–I’m looking at you, National Security Letters–require substantial reform. Many of these changes ought to be common sense, and have attracted bipartisan support in the past. But let’s stop kicking the can down the road and saying we’ll debate the proper limits on the surveillance state when there’s time. It’s important enough that Congress can make time.