Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Under the Hood of the House Intel Committee’s NSA Reform Bill

This post was originally published on March 31, 2014 on Just Security

While details on the president’s proposal to end NSA bulk collection of telephony records remain sparse, we do now have an actual piece of legislation to look at from the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence—one that tracks the broad outlines of the White House plan even as it differs in several critical details. I’ve already done a quick take in broad brushstrokes over at The Daily Beast; here I want to get into the weeds a bit.

The HPSCI bill actually covers quite a bit more than just NSA bulk collection—there are a few transparency measures and a provision for the FISA Court to appoint amici curiae, which mostly seems like an attempt to preempt legislation creating a more robust FISC “advocate”—but in this post I want to focus on the meat: The prohibition (or so it seems) on bulk collection, and the new authority in §503 designed to replace the current bulk telephony program.

(A) The Bulk Prohibition

The first thing to note is that the (apparent) prohibition on bulk collection is structured somewhat oddly, even taking into account the framers apparent desire to limit that prohibition to certain subcategories of records. The USA Freedom Act, for instance, does this by means of a fairly straightforward modification: It limits the scope of §215 (as well as FISA pen/trap orders and National Security letters) to records that are both relevant to an investigation and pertain to a suspected foreign agent or their direct contacts, using language the Senate had unanimously approved back in 2005. The HPSCI bill is rather bit more convoluted.

First, Section 2 of the bill completely excludes “call detail records” from the scope of §215—and only from §215. The bill defines “call detail records” as “communications routing information,” which sounds awfully general, but both the description as “call detail records” and the series of enumerated telephony-specific data types that follow strongly suggest it’s really limited to telephonic communications routing information. There’s some wiggle room here since the general term precedes the more specific enumeration, but especially in light of the subsequent separate prohibition on acquisition of “electronic communications” records, defined to exclude telephonic communications, I’d be surprised if the FISC didn’t read this narrowly. Though the “including” that precedes the enumerated data types indicates that it’s not exhaustive, the omission of location-associated terms like “cell site and sector” is conspicuous. HPSCI staff are apparently assuring reporters that location data is implicitly included, but we do know that law enforcement routinely obtain bulk location data in the form of “tower dumps,” or records of all the phones registered with a specific cell tower at a particular time. Since phones routinely do this even when they’re not placing a call—which is to say, when no particular “communication” is being “routed”—it’s at least an open question whether this provision forbids bulk collection of tower location data.

NSA Spying and a National ID Are Peas in a Pod and You Should Eat Your Peas

That’s the upshot of a column by Froma Harrop appearing in the Seattle Times.

“Arguments leveled against Real ID are being recycled to bash the National Security Agency’s surveillance program,” she writes. “They inevitably lead to the assumption that the government is up to no good.”

Well, … yes.

The argument against creating a U.S. national ID is that its cost in dollars and privacy are greater than the tiny margin of security they might provide. Over years, I’ve pointed out that spending billions of dollars to herd law-abiding Americans into a national ID system might mildly inconvenience any terrorists. It’s not worth doing.

That idea—that security measures should be cost-effective—is wisely ‘recycled’ for use with respect to the NSA’s program to gather data about every call made in the United States. Doing so doesn’t provide a margin of security worth the cost in dollars, privacy, and menace to liberty.

When the government wastes our money, privacy, and liberty on programs that don’t provide a sufficient margin of security, that is bad. That is government “up to no good.”

The states asked to implement our national ID law rejected it because, in the disorganized way our federal republic makes decisions, it was decided that REAL ID does not pass muster. (Some states and national ID advocate groups continue to press forward with it, a subject on which I’ll say more soon.)

In a similarly messy process, the organs of democracy are finding that the NSA’s programs—originally constructed and conducted in secrecy—do not pass muster either. We’re rightly pushing this plate of peas away.

Michelle Malkin Browses Colorado Marijuana Store

Michelle Malkin on her recent experience at a Colorado marijuana store:

For the past three months, my mother-in-law, Carole, whom I love with all my heart, has battled metastatic melanoma. After a harrowing week of hospitalization and radiation, she’s at home now. A miraculous new combination of oral cancer drugs seems to have helped enormously with pain and possibly contained the disease’s spread. But Carole’s loss of appetite and nausea persist.

A month ago, with encouragement from all of her doctors here in Colorado, she applied for a state-issued medical marijuana card. It still hasn’t come through. As a clerk at Marisol Therapeutics told us, there’s a huge backlog. But thanks to Amendment 64, the marijuana drug legalization act approved by voters in 2012, we were able to legally and safely circumvent the bureaucratic holdup. “A lot of people are in your same situation,” the pot shop staffer told us. “We see it all the time, and we’re glad we can help.”

Our stash included 10 pre-rolled joints, a “vape pen” and two containers of cheddar cheese-flavored marijuana crackers (they were out of brownies). So far, just one cracker a day is yielding health benefits. Carole is eating better than she has in three months. For us, there’s no greater joy than sharing the simple pleasure of gathering in the kitchen for a meal, with Grandma Carole at the head of the table.

Do I worry about the negative costs, abuses and cultural consequences of unbridled recreational pot use? Of course I do. But when you get past all the “Rocky Mountain High” jokes and look past all the cable-news caricatures, the legalized marijuana entrepreneurs here in my adopted home state are just like any other entrepreneurs: securing capital, paying taxes, complying with a thicket of regulations, taking risks and providing goods and services that ordinary people want and need. Including our grateful family.

Read the whole thing.

Flashback: Ms. Malkin reviewed my book After Prohibition: An Adult Approach to Drug Policies in the 21st Century.  Here’s a snippet: “The war on drugs is an expensive quagmire that needlessly punishes people who’ve already punished themselves beyond repair.”

For additional background, go here and here.

Is There No Alternative to Forcing People to Violate Their Religious Beliefs?

On a day full of bluster both in and outside the Supreme Court, Hobby Lobby and its super-lawyer Paul Clement had the better of the argument over Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate. While Solicitor General Don Verrilli gamely pressed the plight of the “third-parties” who would lose out if the challengers get an exemption – employees whose contraceptives wouldn’t be paid by their employer – there didn’t seem to be a majority on the Court who saw it that way. Justice after justice probed such issues as whether the government’s interest here was really that compelling given all the exemptions it had already granted (to small employers, religious nonprofits, and grandfathered plans) and whether there was no other way to achieve the same goal. And those are probably the points on which this case will ultimately turn: (1) the contraceptive mandate was not one of the Obamacare requirements that became mandatory as of January 1 (or whenever the administration stops illegally delaying them), and (2) the government could’ve ensured the provision of the contraceptive mandates a different way (e.g., new tax credits or existing public health programs). Despite the parade of horribles invoked by Justice Sotomayor regarding religious objections to blood transfusions and vaccines, at least five justices seemed to recognize that religious-liberty claims are meant to be adjudicated on a case-by-case basis – maybe six given Justice Breyer’s lukewarm and infrequent interjections.

The government fared even worse on its position that for-profit corporations can’t assert religious-exercise interests in the first place. Even Justice Kagan recognized that under certain circumstances, for-profit enterprises may engage in religious activity. While Cato’s amicus brief argued that this “standing” issue is purely academic anyway – the individual corporate owners feel the mandate/fines regardless of who is exercising religion or bringing lawsuits – I count seven votes for getting past this threshold issue.

As I left the argument, I had a bit of spring in my step, even as the snowstorm that greeted me lacked any spring whatsoever. The Court is likely to stop this callous, arbitrary, and needless bending of the will of a small religious minority to the federal grindstone. But alas that’s just this case; the more that the government expands and takes over areas properly left to civil society, the more clashes of conscience will result. Today it’s religious belief, tomorrow something else, but all these liberty-destroying mandates come with the collectivized territory.

The Wall Street Journal on Halbig v. Sebelius

Today, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit will hear oral arguments in Halbig v. Sebelius, one of four cases that Jonathan Adler and I helped spur with our 2013 Health Matrix article, “Taxation Without Representation: The Illegal IRS Rule to Expand Tax Credits Under the PPACA.” Critics call Halbig the most significant existential threat to the Affordable Care Act.” In anticipation of the hearing, the Wall Street Journal wrote a lengthy editorial explaining the issues. Excerpts:

Halbig v. Sebelius involves no great questions of constitutional interpretation. The plaintiffs are merely asking the judges to tell the Administration to faithfully execute the plain language of the statute that Congress passed and President Obama signed.

The Affordable Care Act—at least the version that passed in 2010—instructed the states to establish insurance exchanges, and if they didn’t the Health and Human Services Department was authorized to build federal exchanges. The law says that subsidies will be available only to people who enroll “through an Exchange established by the State.” The question in Halbig is whether these taxpayer subsidies can be distributed through the federal exchanges, as the Administration insists…

In 2012, HHS and the Internal Revenue Service arrogated to themselves the power to rewrite the law and published a regulation simply decreeing that subsidies would be available through the federal exchanges too. The IRS devoted only a single paragraph to its deviation from the statute, even though the “established by a State” language appears nine times in the law’s text. The rule claims that an exchange established on behalf of a state is a “federally established state-established exchange,” as if HHS is the 51st state.

Careful spadework into ObamaCare’s legislative history by Case Western Reserve law professor Jonathan Adler and Michael Cannon of the Cato Institute has demonstrated that this jackalope rule-making was contrary to Congress’s intent…

Mr. Obama has conceded that “obviously we didn’t do a good enough job in terms of how we crafted the law.” The right and only lawful way to repair ObamaCare is through another act of Congress. In Halbig, the judiciary can remind the Obama Administration of this basic constitutional truth.

Jonathan Adler critiques the Halbig district court’s ruling in favor of the IRS here.

Find lots of commentary by me on the Halbig cases at DarwinsFool.com.

This reference guide contains all the information you could want about these cases – and more.