Tag: surveillance

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.

The Fatal Conceit of the “Right to be Forgotten”

Intelligence Squared hosted a lively debate last week over the so-called “Right to be Forgotten” embraced by European courts—which, as tech executive Andrew McLaughlin aptly noted, would be more honestly described as a “right to force others to forget.”  A primary consequence of this “right” thus far has been that citizens are entitled to demand that search engines like Google censor the results that are returned for a search on the person’s name, provided those results are “inadequate, irrelevant, or no longer relevant.”  In other words, if you’re unhappy that an unflattering item—such as a news story—shows up as a prominent result for your name, you can declare it “irrelevant” even if entirely truthful and ask Google to stop showing it as a result for such searches, with ultimate recourse to the courts if the company refuses.  Within two months of the ruling establishing the “right,” the company received more than 70,000 such requests.

Hearteningly, the opponents of importing this “right” to the United States won the debate by a large margin, but it occurred to me that one absolutely essential reason for rejecting this kind of censorship process was only indirectly and obliquely invoked.  As even the defenders of the Right to be Forgotten conceded, it would be inappropriate to allow a person to suppress search results that were of some legitimate public value: Search engines are obligated to honor suppression requests only when linking some piece of truthful information to a person’s name would be embarrassing or harmful to that person without some compensating benefit to those who would recieve the information.  Frequent comparison was made to the familiar legal standards that have been applied to newspapers publishing (lawfully obtained) private information about non-public figures. In those cases, of course, the person seeking to suppress the information is typically opposed in court by the entity publishing the information—such as a newspaper—which is at least in a position to articulate why it believes there is some public interest in that information at the time of publication. 

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).  

You Could Have Read It Here First

If you’ve been reading Cato at Liberty and www.cato.org, then you already know, as the lead story in the Washington Post reported this morning, that both the constitutionality and the necessity of the NSA’s massive surveillance are in doubt:

From the moment the government’s massive database of citizens’ call records was exposed this year, U.S. officials have clung to two main lines of defense: The secret surveillance program was constitutional and critical to keeping the nation safe.

But six months into the controversy triggered by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the viability of those claims is no longer clear.

In a three-day span, those rationales were upended by a federal judge who declared that the program was probably unconstitutional and the release of a report by a White House panel utterly unconvinced that stockpiling such data had played any meaningful role in preventing terrorist attacks.

A Data Retention Mandate? NO

The Wall Street Journal reports that a panel convened by the president to review the National Security Agency’s programs will recommend that “the records of nearly every U.S. phone call now collected in a controversial NSA program be held instead by the phone company or a third-party organization.” That recommendation is a non-starter.

Mandatory data retention has been floated for years using the most politically appealing rationale, child predation. In 2007, we characterized the idea as costly, outsourced surveillance, and Congress has consistently denied that power to the government. In fact, child protection bills containing data retention mandates were introduced in several Congresses but only passed once provisions deputizing communications providers into government surveillance were stripped out. Randy Barnett and I made this point in our brief urging the Supreme Court to take up the NSA’s mass surveillance of Americans’ telephone calling.

“Congress has declined to institute mandatory data retention laws because the costs, risks, and privacy consequences for innocent citizens outweigh their law enforcement and security benefits,” we wrote. “The Verizon order reverses this Congressional policy by requiring a telecommunications provider to turn all data over to the government for retention by the National Security Agency.”

How ironic it would be if the NSA’s illegal excesses delivered it a victory on a policy initiative that it lost years ago. Is secretly violating Americans’ communications privacy really rewarded by a policy requiring the violation of Americans’ communications privacy?

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), who claims authorship of the USA-PATRIOT Act, came to Cato two months ago to lament the NSA’s use of that law for domestic spying he did not intend the NSA to have. In the past, he has said that data retention “runs roughshod over the privacy rights of people who use the Internet for thousands of lawful purposes.” Assumedly, he believes the same as to people’s use of the phone, and he will continue working with other privacy-minded legislators to relegate data retention mandates to the dustbin of history.

NSA: Keeping Us Safe From…Dope Peddlers

The Justice Department says it is reviewing the Drug Enforcement Administration’s “Special Operations Division”—the subject of an explosive report published by Reuters on Monday. The SOD works to funnel information collected by American intelligence agencies to ordinary narcotics cops—then instructs them to “phony up investigations,” as one former judge quoted in the story put it, in order to conceal the true source of the information. In some instances, this apparently involves not only lying to defense attorneys, but to prosecutors and judges as well.

DEA is taking a predictable “nothing to see here” stance in its public responses to the story, but on its face this seems like a fairly brazen violation of the right to due process. As several legal experts quoted in the Reuters article point out, the accused in our criminal justice system cannot effectively defend themselves unless they know how evidence against them was obtained, and this program is clearly designed to deprive them of that knowledge. Moreover, at least some of the information channeled to police derives from FISA electronic surveillance, and 50 USC §1806 explicitly requires the government to notify persons whenever it intends to use information “derived from” such intercepts against them in any legal proceeding. Flouting that requirement is doubly troubling because, in light of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Amnesty v. Clapper, the only way for any court to review the constitutionality of intelligence programs is for a defendant to raise a challenge after being informed that they’ve been subject to surveillance.

One way they’re able to get away with this is by exploiting the fact that our justice system relies so heavily on plea bargains. Prosecutors stack up charges against defendants in hopes of effectively coercing them into waiving their constitutional right to a jury trial and accepting a plea deal, which even for the innocent may make more sense than risking a conviction that could lead to an enormously longer jail sentence. Conveniently, avoiding a trial also greatly reduces the risk that one of these “phonied up” investigations will be exposed.

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