Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Even the Washington Times Says Bush Is Wrong about FISA

This is pretty cool. Not because it quotes me (although that’s pretty cool too), but because it’s the Washington Times, which is occasionally criticized for the right-ward slant of its news coverage, running an article that basically says that that President Bush and his allies in Congress are wrong about FISA:

Many intelligence scholars and analysts outside the government say that today’s expiration of certain temporary domestic wiretapping laws will have little effect on national security, despite warnings to the contrary by the White House and Capitol Hill Republican leaders.

Of course, this has been true all along. There wasn’t an emergency last August when Congress was stampeded into passing the Protect America Act. There wasn’t an emergency last month when the two-week extension got passed. And nothing catastrophic is happening now that the PAA is lapsing. But as long as the president said there was an emergency and the Democrats acted like there was an emergency, journalists weren’t going to say otherwise. When both “sides” of a dispute agree on some point, most journalists will simply accept that point as valid and don’t dig any deeper.

Now that House Democrats are willing to forthrightly state that the expiration of the PAA isn’t a big deal — and act like it’s not a big deal — journalists suddenly have to do their homework and find out who’s telling the truth. And once they do their research, it’s not hard to figure out who’s got the better argument.

Sometimes, good policy is good politics. I think this is one of those cases. If the House leadership capitulates to the president in the next few weeks, it will reinforce the impression that the president was right all along, and we really do need to sacrifice Americans’ privacy in order to fight terrorism. If, on the other hand, House Democrats refuse to enact legislation that undermines judicial oversight or the rule of law, it will cause journalists to write stories like this one, that dig deeper into the arguments of each side. Since in reality, the argument for eviscerating FISA is built on little more than distortions and alarmist rhetoric, that heightened scrutiny will only help those who believe in the rule of law.

Two Sides of the Rule of Law Coin

The president has argued that “[i]f these companies are subjected to lawsuits that could cost them billions of dollars, they won’t participate. They won’t help us. They won’t help protect America.” Pretty scary stuff. But as Kurt Opsahl at EFF points out, if this is an accurate reflection of the telecom companies’ position (and it’s quite possible the president is misrepresenting their position), it’s little more than blackmail. It suggests that the telecom companies would hold the nation’s security hostage for a get-out-of-jail-free card.

Kurt also points out that complying with judicially-issued warrants isn’t optional. The intelligence community isn’t reliant on the goodwill of the telecom industry to ensure compliance. A company that refuses to participate in a lawful eavesdropping program would be ordered to do so by a judge and held in contempt if it refused. So there’s no reason to worry about the telecom companies “not cooperating.” Judges will compel them to cooperate if they’re legally required to do so.

In a sense, complying with lawful surveillance requests and refusing to comply with unlawful ones are two sides of the coin called the rule of law. It’s outrageous that a company would voluntarily violate its customers’ privacy when the law prohibits them from doing so. It would be equally outrageous for a company to refuse to cooperate after the government had gone through the appropriate legal channels. We don’t want decisions about who gets spied on to be subject to the whim of either the president or telecom executives. That’s why we entrust that decision to judges, who are knowledgeable about the law and insulated from corrupted influences.

The Right to Bear… Um…

This week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which is based in New Orleans and covers Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, struck down a Texas statute that criminalized the promotion and sale of sex toys. The Fifth Circuit — where I clerked my first year out of law school — thus became the first and only jurisdiction in the country to recognize the individual right to bear both arms (in the 2001 case of U.S. v. Emerson) and dildoes. (Yes, the statute actually uses the word “dildo” as an example of a prohibited ”obscene device,” which is otherwise defined as a device “designed or marketed as useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs.”)

The Fifth Circuit’s analysis correctly rests on the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision Lawrence v. Texas, which found that Texas’s anti-homosexual sodomy statute violated the Fourteenth Amendment right to engage in private intimate conduct free from government intrusion. Put simply, there is no state interest compelling enough to overcome the individual right to freedom in the bedroom.

Besides Texas, only three states have a similar obscene devices statute: Mississippi, Alabama, and Virginia. The Mississippi Supreme Court has upheld its state’s statute, while neither the Alabama nor Virginia Supreme Courts have entertained such challenges. The legislatures of Louisiana, Kansas, and Colorado had also enacted obscene-device bans, but the laws did not survive review by their respective state supreme courts.

The Eleventh Circuit (covering Alabama, Georgia, and Florida), however, just last year rejected a similar Fourteenth Amendment challenge to the Alabama statute. While the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review that ruling, the Fifth Circuit’s decision now squarely opens up a “circuit split,” which means the issue is ripe for the Court to take up next term. 

The Court has not wanted to touch sex toys cases with, um, a 10-foot pole. But it now has the opportunity to enforce this particular individual right in the same year it (fingers crossed) throws out the D.C. gun ban.

FISA Confusion

I’ve been reading a lot of coverage of the FISA debate this week. I’m getting a little tired of reading commentary from supporters of eliminating judicial oversight who seem to have no clue what they’re talking about. Consider this from FrontPageMag’s Jacob Laksin:

Instead of enjoying the flexibility necessary for real-time intelligence gathering, government officials would be forced to revert to the antiquated standards of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which requires the approval of a special court even to monitor terrorist targets overseas.

In the first place, FISA has been updated repeatedly since the September 11, 2001, so the idea that it’s “antiquated” is silly. Don’t listen to me, listen to the president: “The new law [in 2001] recognizes the realities and dangers posed by the modern terrorist. It will help us to prosecute terrorist organizations — and also to detect them before they strike.”

In the second place, FISA does not, and never has, required a warrant to eavesdrop on foreign communications. FISA only comes into play when intercepting communications between foreigners and Americans, or when conducting surveillance entirely within the United States.

Laksin continues:

One of the signal virtues of the PAA is the fact that it provides liability protection to private companies, like telecoms, who cooperate with the government and aid surveillance efforts. Companies like AT&T already face multibillion dollar lawsuits from leftist activist groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who charge that the companies broke the law by assisting government efforts to prevent terrorist attack. With the expiration of the PAA, these companies will lose their legal protections. In the current litigious climate, it is more than likely that they will simply stop aiding the government in its intelligence work.

The Protect America Act, which was passed last August, did not include retroactive immunity. That’s why there are pending lawsuits against the telecom companies from those “leftist activist groups.” The PAA does include liability protection for firms that cooperate after the law takes effect, and those provisions will expire on Saturday. However, the idea that this will cause telecom companies to stop “cooperating” is absurd. Telecom companies cooperate with eavesdropping not out of the goodness of their heart, but because (once the executive branch has gotten the appropriate warrant) they’re legally required to do so. That will continue to be true after the PAA expires. And in any event, the law is pretty clear on this subject. The only “liability protection” they really need is to follow it.

And on we go:

To be sure, the version of the PAA bill that passed the Senate is far from perfect. For one thing, the bill vastly expands the role of the FISA court in surveillance work, a prospect that should alarm anyone concerned about intelligence agents’ ability to respond rapidly to potential threats.

I’m not sure what he’s referring to. It’s true that the Senate legislation would require the executive branch to file various reports with the FISA court. But given that it simultaneously eviscerates the requirement to get a FISA warrant for foreign-to-domestic communications, I don’t see how it could plausibly be considered an expansion of the FISA court’s role. And these reporting requirements certainly wouldn’t degrade agents’ ability to respond rapidly to potential threats because it gives the government several days after the fact to submit the appropriate reports. Probably the most stringent requirement in the Senate bill is the one requiring the attorney general to send a copy of each “certification” he signs to the FISA court within five days. Running off a copy of an order and sending a courier over to drop it off hardly seems like an intolerable burden.

I could go on, but you get the point. The problem is that most readers have neither the time nor the patience to research these issues in any detail. So when conservative pundits make misleading claims, a lot of readers can’t tell the difference. It’s very frustrating for those of us who are actually familiar with the underlying facts.

(Cross-posted at The Technology Liberation Front)

Bogus Claims of Limitless Executive Power

Cato founder/president/CEO Ed Crane and Board member/senior fellow Bob Levy take on “the president’s bogus claims of limitless executive power” in his battle with Congress over the Terrorist Surveillance Program:

Abiding by the Constitution will not always shield us from bad laws. Nonetheless, even if the Constitution is not a sufficient guidepost, it is certainly a necessary guidepost.

For many years, we were at risk of losing important civil liberties through unchecked transgressions by the executive branch. Maybe we are still at risk. But thanks to the media, the courts and — belatedly — an energized opposition in Congress, the administration has finally resigned itself to a semblance of congressional oversight, even if judicial scrutiny remains inadequate.

The president’s bogus claims of limitless executive power are, for now, on hold. That’s the right constitutional precedent even if it ultimately produces the wrong policy outcomes. Longer term, the precedent is more important than temporal policy judgments. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s plurality opinion in the Hamdi case nicely captured the key principle: “Whatever power the U.S. Constitution envisions for the Executive … in time of conflict, it most assuredly envisions a role for all three branches of government when individual civil liberties are at stake.”

Congress Ignores Fear-Mongering. World Doesn’t End

The Democratic leadership in the House has called the president’s bluff and stood up for the rule of law. Ryan Singel has the details:

The Protect America Act, a temporary but expansive warrantless spying bill passed by Congress last summer, will likely expire Saturday at midnight, a casualty of a battle between President Bush and House Democrats over amnesty for phone companies that aided his secret, warrantless spying program and how much of that program should be legalized. The House leadership announced there will be no more votes before the long President’s Day legislative break.

The bill’s expiration is largely symbolic, but demonstrates that House Democrats are willing to fight Bush on anti-terrorism policies, where fear-mongering rhetoric had previously cowed their opposition.

One of the most interesting things about the last 24 hours is the subtle shift in rhetoric. The New York Times wrote today that “The lapsing of the deadline would have little practical effect on intelligence gathering” — an accurate statement, but one that most people were missing a few days ago. Even conservative pundits such as David Freddoso started hedging their previously sweeping claims about the dire consequences of letting the PAA expire:

If the president does not sign the bill before Saturday, then we revert to the previous FISA law. The feds will be able to continue certain ongoing terrorist monitoring activities, but they cannot initiate new ones. (It becomes easier to start up a terror cell on Saturday.)

Freddoso is not insinuating, as his colleague did, that all surveillance everywhere in the world will grind to a halt after the PAA expires. But Freddoso’s version is still misleading. The Bush administration can initiate new terrorist monitoring activities after the PAA expires. It just has to get a FISA warrant, the same way it did in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2006. Indeed, Bush himself praised the changes Congress made to FISA in the wake of the September 11 attacks, noting that they “will allow surveillance of all communications used by terrorists, including e-mails, the Internet, and cell phones” and makes the intelligences community “able to better meet the technological challenges posed by this proliferation of communications technology.” If we were able to get by with those provisions for nearly six years, surely we’ll be OK living under them again for a couple of weeks.

Organ Shortage Update

The United Network for Organ Sharing on its website provides a running total of the number of people waiting for an organ transplant. Today that number is at 98,059. Next Thursday, Cato is holding a policy forum “Human Organs for Sale?” where solutions for solving the U.S. organ shortage will be discussed by well known advocates both for and against the sale of organs. Also under discussion will be Iran’s organ vending system which some say is so successful that Iran has been without an organ waiting list for almost a decade. To join us, please register at events [at] cato [dot] org.